A romantic comedy features characters, who are seldom seen or understood. Keep the Change, written and directed by filmmaker Rachel Israel, is a delightfully sensitive portrayal of adults with autism. Often films showcasing adults with special needs fall short of the honesty Israel portrays. She avoids the trend to marginalize and romanticize adults with autism.
Born out of actual events, Israel's project called Keep the Change, is a unique narrative feature film cast with non-professional actors with autism, all of who are members of the Adaptations Group at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan, New York. Each adult group member struggles with some form of autism. The specific group and its members called Connections is the focus of Israel's story.
David, age 30, comes from an upper-class, New York family. He lives at home. David is a highly functioning adult with autism and travels everywhere by a chauffeured mode of transportation. He has been raised in a loving and supportive environment with a multitude of advantages. Though challenging, David's family has the privilege to nurture him as if he is not autistic.
A legal misdemeanor hangs over David's head and he's sentenced to attend a support group for adults with disabilities. The Connections group at the Jewish Community Center is chosen for David to attend. Reluctant, David attends the first session then never wants to return. He believes that the members are below his social class and wants nothing more to do with them. David can't get off the charges so easily and must either attend the semester course or appear before the judge for a tougher sentence. His choice is a no-brainier. Off to class he goes!
Sarah, age 24, comes from a dysfunctional family. Sarah lives with her grandma and is her care-giver. They live a long-distance outside of the New York city limits. Sarah is very independent and travels everywhere by bus. Sarah is a highly functioning adult with autism. She is self-assured, happy and lives for the moment.
David and Sarah are chosen to work on a class assignment together. David doesn't take the project seriously and is put-off to be paired with the groups most annoying, and overly enthusiastic member. Sarah is thrilled to be paired with David. Sarah is fun-loving and optimistic and finds David challenging. She has no qualms with being unique and encourages David to embrace the same attitude. When Sarah tells David that she finds him sexy, he slowly finds her worthy of his attention. They begin to develop a close connection. David invites Sarah to a big party at his family's home. He is excited to show her off to his family and friends, especially to his favorite cousin whom he has idolized since childhood. Sarah is nervous. She desperately wants to make a favorable impression on David's upper-class family.
Enjoying the party atmosphere, as well as David's family and friends, Sarah gets a little tipsy. David and Sarah share their story with the cousins and a little too much information is openly shared. David is mortified. He chastises Sarah in front of all who are listening and turns his back on her the rest of the evening. Heart-broken, Sarah apologizes to David's parents and asks his father to take her to the nearest bus station.
Sarah did not make the favorable impression she was dreaming of, but decided she would not accept David's unkind treatment and refused any further contact.
Four weeks left in the semester course. The relationship with David and Sarah takes on a new twist. Together, with the help of their classmates, each discovers the value of truth, humor and optimism to navigate a new-found life journey.
TriBeCa Film Festival program selection never fails to spotlight films that feature people with special needs. I look for these films each year and I'm never disappointed. It's a challenge for filmmakers to represent this particular group adequately. I'm impressed with directors like Rachel Israel for their bravery and commitment to educate the film audience and expand the understanding of diversity. Race or gender dysphoria should not be the only voices heard under the umbrella of diversity. Impressive are the filmmakers of today who are willing to spotlight a variety of unique voices needing to be heard.