It is Rachel Israel’s long-standing friendship with Brandon Polansky that inspired the writer and director to create Keep the Change.

The 2013 short film is “a love story about David, an upper-class charmer struggling to hide his high-functioning autism, who is forced to attend a support group for people with disabilities where he falls in love with Sarah, a sheltered, young autistic woman, who challenges his desire to maintain an identity as ‘normal.'”

Polansky falls on the Autism Spectrum. Friends since before Israel went to college, a driving force in the years that the two had known one another was Polansky’s desire for a girlfriend. It was, according to Israel, a full-time, unsuccessful pursuit that spanned online dating to meeting girls in bars. Polansky was eventually able to meet a woman on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that he was able to sustain a relationship with. Once he was in a relationship, Polansky struggled with what being in a relationship meant. 

Polansky plays a character that is not so completely different from how he interacts with the world and  the character in the film is a version of himself that he worked with Israel to achieve. Israel works with these adults on a weekly basis, working with the actors to create characters that are the best representation of the actors and their story and struggles. These have been worked into the story line of the film to represent real-life concerns faced by these individuals.

Israel became involved with Polansky’s community on the Upper West Side by volunteering at the group he attended. Here, she met the other characters and actors in the film, including David’s love interest Sarah, played by Samantha Elisofon. 

Elisofon, like Polansky, falls on the Autism Spectrum and additionally has a language processing disorder. Like her character, Sarah, Elisofon is a popular girl. She is an attentive listener but oftentimes has a hard time understanding, and does not like feeling excluded. Of note about Elisofon is her awareness that the world views her differently, but feels like it is the world that is holding her back from doing what she loves, which is performing.

The short film covers the first day David spends as part of this support group, his homework assignment with another woman in the community named Sarah, and the connection formed by the two working together.

The acting has been therapeutic for Polansky, Elisofon, Israel, and the other members of the community. Brandon and Samantha have increased confidence in their daily lives. Israel has learned to direct differently, streamlining her her process to increase efficiency. Further, for Polansky, Elisofon, and the rest of the cast, the actors get to become the characters they want to become, giving them an outlet to express themselves in their disability. 

Keep the Change is currently being expanded into a feature film, set to include and expand upon other characters that were introduced in the short. All actors present in the feature film are members of the community of developmentally disabled adults that Israel works with in the community center. The longer film will include David coming to terms with his identity as an autistic adult and Sarah’s attachment to David due to her own fear of abandonment. 

Most of the film is improvisation by the actors, and the feature film will allow the actors to best represent themselves through improvisation.

The short has been played at numerous film festivals including Sprout Film Festival (2014), Maine Jewish Film Festival (2014). and the Reelabilities Film Festival (2014) and has won awards like the Focus Features Best Film and Alumni Award at the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival. 

The response to Keep the Change has been overwhelmingly positive, especially with humor. At the core of it, this is a love story, not a film about disability. It is a story about connectivity, and finding love and friendship. As a result of working on the film, Israel has learned to re-think communication and increased enlightenment as to how the brain works, including the ways that Israel approaches conversations. 

Keep the Change was produced by Tangerine Films, a female-led production team that works with women writer-directors. For those that fall outside the neurotypical community, media representation is few and oftentimes consists of those with the diability as being taken care of, or as the sibling to the main character. Israel and Tangerine felt like a natural pairing due to the ideas of nurturing and flexibility that made working with a neuro-disabled community easier. Israel needed to adapt to the characters to help them thrive and Tangerine gave her the flexibility to do that.

Israel did not know anyone with autism before meeting Polansky, and saw in him a desire for connection that was not portrayed in the media. The feature film will continue this goal by by incorporating social skills and drama therapy into the making of the film, and educate those on issues not often explored in the community of young adults with disabilities.

According to the Keep the Change team, “Our story addresses: finding love, maintaining relationships, interacting in various social settings, living independently and making emotionally independent decisions about personal relationships – both platonic and sexual. In setting out to capture the essences of our magnificent cast of characters, we hope to portray them in all of their fully flawed humanity. We are not seeking a sanitized portrayal of these characters. Bigotry, classism and sexual prejudices are an important and truthful part of this world.”

CNS Foundation is interested in many of the ideas espoused by Keep the Change. Representing youth and young adults with developmental and neurological conditions in the media is a ripe place for social change; when these groups become visible in this arena, it opens doors for discussion and action. Israel and her team is fostering a creative outlet for these nonprofessional actors to use drama to explore their own conditions and how these conditions meet in the neurotypical world. Further, the core of the film is the innate desire for connection with others and the beauty of love, which transcends age or ability.

To make a donation to help fund the feature film, “Keep the Change”, please visit the link here.

Visit the Facebook and Twitter pages for Keep the Change.

Check out Tangerine Entertainment here.