Photo credit: The Jewish News of Northern California
Whether for a fun date night or an evening with friends, the romantic comedy has long been a staple in the film industry. From the many light-hearted and funny moments to the more touching scenes, a good romantic comedy leaves viewers feeling happy, which may be why the genre has been a favorite among audiences for so long. While the romantic comedy genre does have an enthusiastic fan base, films in this genre tend to focus on more neurotypical characters, but new initiatives in media are doing more to highlight some of the less told stories.
New film: “Keep the Change”
While there are countless romantic comedies, and plenty that could be picked out as classics, there aren’t a whole lot that focus on characters who aren’t neurotypical. Rom-coms often focus on young adults with supermodel good looks that walk and talk like they were homecoming king and queen in their younger days.
While stories like these might be enjoyable to watch, it’s also important to embrace the differences that make us human. And that’s exactly what filmmaker Rachel Israel has tried to do with her new film “Keep the Change.”
Israel’s film has been in the process of production for close to six years now. The plotline of “Keep the Change” was inspired by a friend of Israel’s on the autism spectrum whom she met while in school at Florida Atlantic University. At that point, Israel decided that she wanted to create romantic comedy that explored some of the deeper and more particular aspects of humanity that are often glossed over in the movies. Her real-life relationship with her autistic friend inspired Israel to think beyond the surface level of laughs and romance and to begin exploring a film that would deal openly with an autistic relationship.
The filmmaking process
After developing her screen play, Israel began by adapting it into a short film. The short film starred Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon in the lead roles, and interestingly, both of the actors who played the main characters themselves have autism in real life. While Polansky and Elisofon did go on to star in the short film and later feature film adaptation of the same storyline, they weren’t always slated to play these key roles.
From the beginning, Israel decided to cast Polansky as the male lead. Israel had met Polansky through a Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side of New York City that has a vibrant group and programming for adults with autism. Israel was drawn to Polansky’s charm and so he was cast, but originally, he was intended to be the only actor with autism.
At the beginning, Israel planned on filling the rest of the screenplay’s roles with neurotypical actors. They were even in the process of auditioning multiple actresses for the role that Elisofon would eventually play. But with each audition, Israel continued to feel like something wasn’t quite right. Polansky’s charm and the organic performance that he brought to the role as someone with autism himself was undercut by the neurotypical actors. So, Israel decided to go a different direction. Instead of looking for other neurotypical actors and actresses to fill out the rest of the ensemble, Israel cast Samantha Elisofon as the female lead and then filled in the rest of the cast with other individuals with autism as well.
The final cut
When you hear of a romantic comedy about two individuals with autism falling in love, and then learn that the cast is made up of actors who have autism in real life, you might be shocked by the idea. Despite the many films that have been made in recent years highlighting individuals that aren’t neurotypical, there have been very few that have explored what life is like for non-neurotypical individuals with actors who themselves experience daily life with different mental conditions. Israel cited this fact as a key motivator in her decision to ultimately fill her cast with actors with autism. While this certainly brought its own set of challenges to the filming process, it also created a unique and beautiful product.
One of the ways in which casting individuals with autism for the leading roles helped shape “Keep the Change” was through the storyline itself. Israel had been developing the script for “Keep the Change” for nearly six years and had already created a short film before adapting the concept into feature length. Although the script and plot of “Keep the Change” was well developed, Israel let Polansky and Elisofon improvise and take the script in new directions.
Israel used her pre-existing material to set up scenes and scenarios, but then the lead actors would play them out in different ways more congruent with their real-life experiences. Having individuals with autism in the leading roles of the film gave the final product a more realistic feel since Polansky and Elisofon were able to display emotions and reactions that they drew from their own lives. While casting people with autism for her film may have seemed like a bold choice for Israel, ultimately the actors were able to imbue the final cut with more authenticity than a neurotypical actor could have.
Autism in the media
For many people with autism and advocates alike, “Keep the Change” is symbolic of a hopeful new direction. Although less common, there are a fair number of films that explore what life is like for individuals who live with mental health conditions. While there have been a fair number of these big budget films, few if any actually cast individuals who experience mental health conditions in leading roles. A film like “Keep the Change” is a triumph not only because Israel chose to cast actors with autism to star in the film, but because their casting was so successful and delivered such a rich final product.
The problem with representation of individuals with autism and other mental health conditions isn’t limited to film, and really not limited to the broader media either. While the topic has been increasingly discussed and explored in recent years, there aren’t very many examples of people with autism actually guiding production or having the platform to offer their firsthand voices. People with autism and advocates are hoping that this is starting to change.
“Keep the Change” joins a growing list of media products and organizations that are doing more to highlight the firsthand experiences of people with autism. The children’s show “Sesame Street” recently introduced an autistic character and Netflix recently released a new series that explores the topic, called “Atypical.”
Additionally, more and more companies are beginning to open their doors a bit wider to the possibility of employing non-neurotypical individuals. Tech company SAP recently committed to hiring 650 people with autism into its workforce. While this number may seem small – it only represents about 1% of the company’s total workforce – the initiative itself is a positive direction, especially when you learn that SAP was motivated to make the decision after recognizing the great abilities with logic and problem solving that people with autism often possess. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it seems like “Keep the Change” may be part of a broader initiative to bring autism and other conditions into the spotlight.
For a long time now there has been plenty of misinformation or just total silence regarding autism and other mental health conditions. That’s not entirely surprising; physicians and researchers still don’t understand what causes autism or the best ways to treat it. Whether we know a lot or a little, there are still lots of individuals who live with the condition on a daily basis. Films like “Keep the Change” are part of a growing movement to understand people with autism better by allowing them to share their own experiences. Whether it’s more authentic representation in the media or more opportunities for employment, we’re certainly hopeful that the general perspective on autism is headed in a more positive direction.