Something I learned, and continue to learn, as the sister to a brother who has Asperger Syndrome is that autistic people are not typically well understood in North American culture. Maybe this has something to do with who’s doing the storytelling. While a few films about people with autism have been released in recent years, the actors who tell the story aren’t always autistic.
This is what makes Keep the Change—and the fact that it won Best Picture at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival—so important. It is a film about autistic people, based on the lives of real autistic people, played by autistic people. It’s a film that dignifies their lives, validates their experiences, and helps others understand their situations in a way that abled actors couldn’t convey.
In short, Keep the Change is about David, a thirty-something autistic man who, after telling a cop an inappropriate joke, is mandated to join a social skills group at the Jewish Community Center.
But it is about so much more than that. It’s a story about coming to terms with who you are, when you have long denied that you’re different. It’s about being a person with special needs in a family that looks down on and stigmatizes people who have special needs. It is about becoming part of a group of people like you, and admitting that you need their help. It’s about falling in love with one of those people, and the complications of being in a romantic relationship when you’re autistic (for instance, touching each other affectionately or going out on dates can be confusing and hard).
One of the words critics are using to describe Keep the Change is “disarming.” And it is that. The characters have brave, difficult conversations about the behavior of and attitudes toward people with special needs. In a particularly wince-worthy scene, David feels ashamed when his girlfriend, not understanding social cues, embarrasses him in front of a group of Broadway actors. He ends up angrily telling her to shut up, further embarrassing everyone present. While the film portrays the characters empathetically and thoughtfully, it doesn’t sugarcoat or romanticize autism.
The film is also disarming in its sweetness. One scene that brought me to tears was when David took Sarah on a date at Coney Island. The two go on a ride together, and David, feeling overwhelmed by the lights and sounds around him, has a meltdown. Instead of judging him, Sarah gives him a hug. She receives him with tenderness and patience in a way that his family has not.
Another beautiful thing about the film is how vibrant, warm, and genuinely funny the supporting cast of autistic actors are. They are playing real people, not caricatures of autistic people. The joy and power they bring to the film is not something that abled actors playing autistic adults could replicate.
Our society needs stories that dignify and shed light on the lives of autistic people, and Keep the Change is one small but important step in that direction. I am so excited and proud that our library has selected it to be part of our collection.