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Laura Seymour on Keep the Change

Laura Seymour on Rachel Israel’s Keep the Change (2018)

I was attracted to director Rachel Israel’s Keep the Change (Kino Lorber, 2018, which began as a short submitted as Israel’s film school thesis) because it is a depiction of autism and learning disability performed by autistic actors. The straw that broke the camel’s back for my purchase from the USA were discussions of the recent performance in London of the play All in a Row. The discussions often revolved around who should represent us and what stories they can tell. I watched this film hoping for some syrupy romance far removed from the picaresque literature I am researching. The film follows the romance between David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who meet at a group for autistic people. David has told an inappropriate joke to a police officer (what Israel calls David’s ‘bad, offensive jok[ing]’ is a theme of the film)[1] and is required to attend the group as an alternative to jail. David and Sarah fall in love, simultaneously challenged by those around them (conspicuously by David’s mother). Learning behavioural norms is partly a survival technique; David and Sarah practice the give-and-take of conversation whilst watched and critiqued by the group, for example. But David in particular is concerned with sailing through life unseen, his embodied self held in check, constrained to the point of invisibility, explained away. For instance, he attempts to pass his tics or stims off as sneezes, citing ‘allergies’. At one moment when group members are asked about their ideal superpower, characters offer fantasies of marriage or the ability to be seen for who they really are. David says that his would be to be ‘invisible’.

David proffers a $20 bill to his family driver, chauffeuring he and Sarah around, and later when he buys flowers for Sarah. He does so using a practiced gesture and repeated language: ‘keep the change’. It’s a magnanimous act which constructs him as the prince charming he wants to be. I read it also as a neat way of avoiding the difficulty of actually counting out the change under pressure. For me, the most poignant moment is when a bus driver insists on the correct change, and the film focuses on what ensues for David: he cannot cope and Sarah (whom he has just spurned as she has been ’embarrassing’ him with her bubbly, frank behaviour in front of the ‘important people’ in his cousin’s social circle) comes to his aid. Their relationship is mended. In my opinion, this scene shows what happens when our personal behavioural codes break down, how this can cause us to question ourselves and the group(s) we belong to but also how it can hopefully forge newer and warmer relationships with others.

Keep the Change (Kino Lorber, 2018)

In my current research I am interested not just in the consequences of refusing to behave according to bodily norms: non-conforming bodies robbed, imprisoned, or beaten back into line. I am also interested in how early modern people who didn’t behave in ‘acceptable’ ways (re)shaped those norms, like the radical religious non-conformists who refused to change their behaviour and who petitioned, with some success, for their ability to move their bodies in worship as they pleased. Though Keep the Change is a film about a couple in 21st century New York, I found myself wondering how it might suggest new, more personal, ways of understanding the early modern world. When David Cohen says at the end of the film, ‘I like her because she’s weird…’, I hope that he effects a shift in the way his family sees Sarah. It also shows a shift in the way he sees her (and himself: ‘…I’m weird too’); he is no longer embarrassed by her behaviour: he embraces it. I believe that if we understand the friction points between individual behaviour and societal expectations in the past, we can understand better ways to negotiate these friction points in the future. Very often, I am finding from my research, early modern people who did not behave as they were supposed to opened up ways of being that we still inhabit today.


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