A Refreshing Take on the Idea of Representation

in 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Karin Svensson

How do we achieve fair representation in a film, without diminishing it’s commercial and artistic value? This has been the question of the decade in western cinema in general, and in Hollywood in particular.

Many debates have been sparked by this basic question, including the outrage directed at ‘whitewashing’ in films like Ghost in the Shell (where Scarlett Johansson plays an iconic Asian character) and the use of cis actors to play transgender characters (Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, among others) – thus robbing actual Asian and transgender actors of opportunity. These habits also help reinforce stereotypes, akin to those perpetuated by the use of ‘blackface’ in early cinema, as the people being portrayed in the story are being left out of the creative process.

On the other side of the argument are filmmakers claiming that the use of established stars (i.e., white and cis) is a necessity in order to ensure financing and commercial success for the film. Another argument is the nature of the acting itself: to embody another person, with experiences and traits that differ from one’s own. Still, an Asian performer playing a Asian character would still require solid acting skills – unless we think all Asian people are one and the same.

Far fewer of these concerns has so far been raised when it comes to the portrayal of disabilites on film. Quite the contrary, actors and actresses are habitually lauded for their achievements in transforming themselves into individuals with physical impairments or psychological disorders, Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot), Dustin Hoffamn (Rain Man) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind) being just three examples out of many. This phenomenon is successfully (if somewhat insensitively) mocked in the satire Tropic Thunder where Ben Stiller plays an actor who is sorely dissapointed after being snubbed on the award circuit despite ”going full retard” in an Oscar-baiting film.

Maybe the idea of casting actual disabled people in a film about disability has been considered to risky or even impossible (with the shining exception of deaf star Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God). While racism, homophobia and transphobia is starting to be properly addressed, ableism is still largely accepted in our societies.

Enter writer/director Rachel Israel. In her stunning feature debut we meet David (Brandon Polansky), a man in his 30’s with a chip on his shoulder. He comes from a wealthy New York family and is steeped in privileges, but struggles with finding love. When he’s court-ordered to attend a course at a community center after insulting a police officer, he is at first full of contempt for the place and the people. That is, until he falls hard for center regular Sarah (Samantha Elisofon). It’s a story about loneliness and love, about adversity and acceptance, and at the center of it all are two people with autism, played by two actors on the autism spectrum. And what these two performers bring to their characters is absolutely unique and indespensable.

The script is roaringly funny and, like most things that are truly funny, it’s taken from real life. Rachel Israel’s friendship with actor Brandon Polansky compelled her to write the story about David and Sarah when he introduced her to his friends at a Jewish community center in New York, she found both her subject and her actors.

What is so interesting and refreshing about the two main characters is not mainly their struggle with disability, but their respective personalities. David is grumpy and self-absorbed – partly due to his autism, partly due to his coddled upbringing – but develops his capacity for joy in his relationship with Sarah. She is one of a kind, a vivacious and exhuberant bon vivant, something of an oversharer (she describes the budding relationship to David’s mother by saying ”it has been great and so sexual”) and with a few surprises up her sleeve.

Through Polansky and Elisofon, it is as if we see people like David and Sarah – really see them – for the very first time. It is powerful and utterly captivating. It’s important to point out that they do not play themselves in the film, they simply draw on their own experiences to play their characters. But there is a special flavour to their acting, a truth and lightness that would be impossible for a neurotypical actor to achieve.

Keep the Change is a great piece of entertaining and thought-provoking cinema, with the added bonus of being beautifully inclusive. Hollywood should watch and learn.

Edited by Steven Yates