Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon in Keep the Change

On one level, Keep the Change (which opens today at the Music Box) is a formulaic romantic comedy about a man and woman who meet cute, fall in and out of love, then rediscover their affection for each other. On another level, the film is a documentary-style portrait of what it’s like to be an adult with autism and learning disabilities—the principal characters are played by people who actually have these conditions, and writer-director Rachel Israel (expanding on a 2013 short of the same name) shows them engaging in activities they would likely pursue in their real lives. Much of the film takes place in continuing education classes and recreational clubs for people with intellectual disabilities; it also considers real-world challenges that such people face, like as maintaining friendships, interacting with strangers, and performing daily living skills. (The film’s title refers to the protagonist’s difficulty with counting money.) The familiar plot provides a structure for Israel’s observations and helps create familiarity with people that viewers might not encounter in their everyday lives.

When the movie opens, David Cohen (Brandon Polansky) is preparing to enter a course at a Manhattan Jewish Community Center for people with intellectual disabilities. He was ordered to attend the program by the police as punishment for telling an off-color joke to an officer on duty. David likes to tell jokes, but he has difficulty determining when his jokes are appropriate; this problem will get him in trouble several more times over the course of Keep the Change, and this development points to how people with autism can have difficulty reading social cues. David lives with his parents in a well-to-do New York suburb and they assist him with many of his daily living needs. The family chauffeur drives him everywhere he needs to go, and his parents support him financially. (David doesn’t work; the film suggests that he’s incapable of holding down a job.) In spite of these setbacks, David still engages in such typical adult activities as dating; however, he has trouble sustaining (or, in many cases, even beginning) a romantic relationship with the women he meets online.

David resents having to attend the JCC course—he seems uncomfortable around other people with intellectual disabilities, perhaps because they remind him of his own shortcomings. He stubbornly refuses to participate in a getting-to-know-you activity in the course, but the instructor challenges him to engage with the others, giving him a homework assignment where he and another student, Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), visit the Brooklyn Bridge and record their observations. Sarah, who also has autism and a learning disability, likes David from the get-go, though David, still feeling resentful, refuses to engage her in conversation. Yet she wins him over in time, and soon they become a couple.

Keep the Change

Israel handles this evolution sensitively, drawing attention to the characters’ need for affection—both emotional and physical. At the same time, she doesn’t indulge in cheap wish-fulfillment scenarios. David and Sarah may find love, but they continue to struggle with the issues they faced before they met. They still experience trouble recognizing how other people feel—in particular David says things to his new girlfriend that come across as insensitive. The couple also has to deal with the bad behavior of others; some of their friends at the JCC try to put a stop to their romance (likely out of jealousy), and David’s mother expresses concern that the relationship won’t last. “Why don’t you try to find someone more advanced?” she asks in a critical scene. It’s a complex moment, spotlighting the mother’s understandable worry for David as well as her prejudiced view that he’s unable to make decisions for himself.

This scene also stands out because it’s one of the few instances of prejudice in Keep the Change—Israel makes a point of showing communities where people with disabilities are generally accepted. In one of the movie’s more pleasant surprises, Israel presents David’s relationship with his cousin, a well-known TV actor. David often tells his friends that his cousin will help him enter his short film into a festival, and since Israel never shows the cousin until late in the film, viewers might suspect that David’s exaggerating his relationship with him. When the cousin finally appears, he shows real affection toward David (even though he makes no mention of the short film), and his interactions don’t betray the slightest twinge of pity. Keep the Change may be a breakthrough in its focus on real people with intellectual disabilities, but it’s especially commendable for providing positive examples of how the nondisabled can create inclusive environments for all.