A true ‘Change’ in per­spec­tive

This very dif­fer­ent rom-com tries to show autism through an en­tirely new lens

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - STEVEN ZEITCHIK

Movies about peo­ple with neu­ro­log­i­cal chal­lenges form a ro­bust sub­genre: “I Am Sam,” “Awak­en­ings,” “Girl, In­ter­rupted,” “Rain Man” and plenty oth­ers.

These films vary in qual­ity and tone, but they do have one thing in com­mon: a neuro-typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood ac­tor play­ing the lead part, thus of­fer­ing an in­her­ently glossy view of com­plex lives.

Rachel Is­rael took a look at these movies and de­cided to go an­other way.

The de­but film­maker had a friend with autism — Bran­don Polan­sky, whom she met when they were in the same art class at Florida At­lantic Uni­ver­sity a num­ber of years back. She de­cided to build a ro­man­tic com­edy around him.

“I like ‘Rain Man’; I al­ways have been very moved by it,” Is­rael said. “But it’s taken from the brother’s per­spec­tive. I wanted to make a hu­man por­trait that was from the (neuro-atyp­i­cal) per­son’s per­spec­tive, fully flawed and un­san­i­tized.”

That im­pulse led to a short, “Keep the Change,” and then a fea­ture by the same name — a New York-set rom-com that ex­plores its autis­tic char­ac­ters’ lives from an in­ti­mately first-per­son point of view. The film is ground­break­ing in its own low-key, charm­ingly nat­u­ral­ist way, one rea­son it just won a se­ries of top prizes at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val.

As she sat in a New York of­fice last week along­side Polan­sky and fel­low star Sa­man­tha Eliso­fon, Is­rael de­scribed a process that’s as hard — or harder — than it sounds.

The film­maker knew she wanted to cast Polan­sky. But for the fe­male lead she tried neuro-typ­i­cal ac­tors, think­ing it might be eas­ier if she had more ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tors in other roles.

But then, “it be­came clear that wasn’t go­ing to work. You’d have one ac­tor who was not like the oth­ers. It would feel like a kind of ex­ploita­tion,” she said.

En­ter Eliso­fon, who had done some singing and act­ing and had high-func­tion­ing autism. Soon the rest of the cast was filled out with other first-time ac­tors at var­i­ous points on the autism spec­trum. She would show their lives, feel­ings and, yes, strug­gles all from the in­side.

Is­rael crafted a script, com­ing up with fic­tional sit­u­a­tions for her leads, whom she named David and Sarah. But she also talked to Polan­sky and Eliso­fon about their own lives and built many of those mo­ments into the script.

“The huge fun in this process was all the work that en­abled me to dis­cover these gems of hu­man be­ings,” said Is­rael, who has a mas­ter’s of fine arts from Columbia Uni­ver­sity. “Then the creative chal­lenge was, can we cap­ture that for the film?” She cre­ated what she calls “booby traps” — mo­ments that she thought the ac­tors would re­spond to with their own nu­ance and ex­pe­ri­ence, in turn lead­ing to spon­ta­neous au­then­tic­ity.

The years of de­vel­op­ment and prepa­ra­tion worked. The fin­ished film has verisimil­i­tude to burn; at times it can al­most feel like a doc­u­men­tary.

Much of the set­ting of “Keep the Change” in­volves a sup­port group, in which the neuro-atyp­i­cal adults form friend­ships and ri­val­ries as com­plex as those of any other so­cial dy­namic.

And of course at the cen­tre of the film is a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. “Keep the Change” deals with some of life’s small painful mo­ments for these char­ac­ters, down to some­thing as mod­ern, and hu­man, as on­line dat­ing. Be­fore David and Sarah meet, he of­ten surfs dat­ing web­sites, where he can be charis­matic and win a first date. But in per­son a se­ries of tics and off-kil­ter com­ments can star­tle the women he’s with, lead­ing to some heart­break­ing scenes. The story is also based on Polan­sky’s com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents.

In per­son, Polan­sky is quick with a joke, of­ten with a pop-cul­ture aware­ness, many of them po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect. Eliso­fon is gre­gar­i­ous and is prone to cer­tain goto phrases, like hotsy-totsy and easy-peasy, which be­comes the ba­sis of a play­ful ar­gu­ment be­tween David and Sarah in the movie.

“When I was with Bran­don as David and Sarah, it was a mix and match,” said Eliso­fon. “Some­times we just talked like we do. But some­times I was very vul­ner­a­ble be­cause the char­ac­ter is so emo­tional.

“It wasn’t,” she said with a know­ing smile, “so easy-peasy.”

Polan­sky, sit­ting across from her in dark sun­glasses and an all­black en­sem­ble he ca­su­ally re­ferred to as his Johnny Cash look, noted, “It was based on me, but I didn’t feel like I was play­ing my­self,” he said. “Paul Rudd, not Shia LaBeouf.”

As “Change” seeks dis­tri­bu­tion, it re­minds how dif­fer­ent in­die film looks in 2017: how doc­u­men­tary and nar­ra­tive can blend and can in­volve new sen­si­tiv­i­ties. But ul­ti­mately it re­in­forces that rom-coms are hap­pen­ing all around us; they just don’t look like typ­i­cal rom­coms.

“For a long time that I’ve known Bran­don, I haven’t thought about autism,” Is­rael said. “But when I saw what was hap­pen­ing in his life, with dat­ing, as a wil­ful and driven per­son, I re­al­ized that all these de­pic­tions of autism are of some­one pas­sive. And the peo­ple with autism, who have the most at stake, aren’t pas­sive. I wanted to change that per­cep­tion.”

GIACOMO BELLETTI, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sa­man­tha Eliso­fon as Sarah Sil­ver­stein, left, and Bran­don Polan­sky as David Co­hen in “Keep the Change.”

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