Want to hear a joke? David (Brandon Polansky) has plenty, but you might not find them funny. There’s the one about Bill Cosby (you can likely guess the punchline), another about Kobe Bryant (same) and more than a few about his fellow Jews. This latter category tends to do best at the local Jewish Community Center, where David has unwillingly been sent to attend a support group for adults with disabilities.
Like many in “Keep the Change,” Polansky is a nonprofessional actor on the autism spectrum. Rachel Israel’s debut feature — which just took home the prize for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at Tribeca — is marked by a docu-reality aesthetic befitting its modest-but-effective storytelling. Expanded from her short film of the same name, it also shows signs of its truncated origins: The film’s central relationship is strong, but it’s virtually the only layer in a story that could have used a few more.
David describes himself as “hobophobic,” spends his free time working on an autobiographical film and fancies himself a big shot — a perception shared by few others, much to his chagrin. He’s also loath to take off his sunglasses, even and especially indoors, and is clearly disappointed every time his semi-famous cousin doesn’t return one of his calls.
During an exercise at the JCC one day, David is asked, along with everyone else in his program, which superpower he would most like to possess. When he answers without hesitation that he’d like to be invisible, it at first seems like he’s finally letting down his guard and revealing something about himself. Then he adds that he chose invisibility because it would allow him to enter women’s locker rooms undetected.
In other words, he’s exactly the kind of difficult romantic-comedy protagonist just waiting to be softened by the right woman. That’s where the film’s true standout comes in: Samantha Elisofon, who elevates what could have been a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl into something far more distinctive and disarming. Also autistic but not quite as high-functioning as her soon-to-be boyfriend, her Sarah has a disposition so sunny that not even David can resist it (not that he doesn’t try).
Her charm carries “Keep the Change,” just as it carries their budding relationship, but it’s no less a defense mechanism than David’s sunglasses. As he grapples with the pain of realizing that his self-image doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, she gets caught in the crossfire. David can’t understand why she enjoys spending time at their support group, which is to say he can’t understand why she accepts who she is instead of trying to be something different, something more. Can you guess which of them is happier and more content?
“Keep the Change” positions itself to join the pantheon of New York rom-coms, an enduring tradition to which Israel has added a refreshingly uncynical new take. We’ve seen the Brooklyn Bridge up there on the big screen plenty of times, but rarely have we seen it crossed by characters quite like these.