2018-05-09 / Local News

Movie about and starring autistic actors moves Jewish Film Festival crowd

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


Pictured at The Cherry Hill Volvo Cars Jewish Film Festival of the Katz JCC airing of “Keep the Change” were (from left), Talia Eapen of Epic Theater Players, a neuro-inclusive theater group in Manhattan, actress Samantha Elisofon, actor Brandon Polansky, and Melinda Kane, festival co-chair. Pictured at The Cherry Hill Volvo Cars Jewish Film Festival of the Katz JCC airing of “Keep the Change” were (from left), Talia Eapen of Epic Theater Players, a neuro-inclusive theater group in Manhattan, actress Samantha Elisofon, actor Brandon Polansky, and Melinda Kane, festival co-chair. In the film “Keep the Change,” David Cohen is a 30- something, upper-class dilettante who can’t help but tell politically incorrect jokes.

He meets Sarah, a vivacious and confident ingénue, at the Upper West Side Jewish Community Center. They don’t initially click. But as happens in all Manhattan love stories, the two fall for each other. A betrayal nearly tears them apart before love prevails in the end.

But the Best Picture winner in the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival is no typical rom-com: Sarah and David both are on the Autism spectrum. And instead of neurotypical Hollywood personalities portraying these romantic leads, nonprofessional performers who actually have autism own the roles.

Another way Director Rachel Israel’s first feature film is groundbreaking: She worked with her stars to develop the story, incorporating their own personalities and real-life experiences into the narrative. It is loosely based on the real life of her friend Brandon Polansky, who played the part of David.

To the delight of the Cherry Hill Volvo Cars Jewish Film Festival of the Katz JCC audience, Polansky and leading lady Samantha Elisofon (Sarah) spoke enthusiastically about the movie and their lives following the well-received airing May 2 at the Voorhees AMC.

In person, the similarities between the fictional leads and the real people portraying them were striking. Polansky is charming and quick with a joke, albeit an off-color one. Elisofon is exuberant and talks a mile a minute. Phrases she uses over and over in the film, such as “easy-peasy” and “mix and match,” lace her speech.

“I just want to say it is such an honor of Rachel doing this film about me,” said Polansky, 40, who met Israel taking art classes some 14 years ago. “Yes, this film is based on my life story. To be honest, it is highly moving but she does tend to exaggerate things. Some things I wouldn’t do in real life, like make a blind date so uncomfortable in Central Park she would want to join the #Metoo Movement.”

Elisofon, 27, said it is “easy-peasy” to identify the qualities she shares with her character.

“I could completely relate and put myself in Sarah’s shoes,” she said. “She has an incredible amount of energy, is peppy, upbeat, really lovey-dovey, outgoing warm and affectionate.”

Both she and Sarah take things very literally and have trouble understanding words and phrases that have double meanings. However, she stressed, Sarah is more open to sexual adventure and open about it. In real life, she is more traditional.

“I don’t say inappropriate stuff that could turn people off and make them feel awkward,” Elisofon said.

Israel based the story on Polansky’s first serious romantic relationship, which lasted seven years before flaming out around the time filming began. To find her Sarah, the director tried out about 100 neurotypical actresses before casting Elisofon, who had done singing and acting before and has high-functioning autism. Besides big-time stars Jessica Waters and Tibor Feldman, who play David’s parents, the cast is filled out with non-professional performers on the autism spectrum.

After the showing, audience members asked the actors numerous questions, ranging from the treatments they received as children to their real-life experiences in the dating world to the degree they live independently. Both made it known they are just friends, still single and available. Polansky said he was diagnosed with severe ADHD in preschool and spent his school years in classes with others with disabilities, which he described as a 12-year prison. He didn’t actually receive the autism diagnosis until he had a breakdown after high school.

Elisofon noted that her wonderful parents did not accept the dire prognosis experts had given about her prospects when she was diagnosed with autism at age three. Through her parents’ strong advocacy, she said, she received excellent and appropriate schooling.

“My parents proved the doctors and teachers wrong,” she said. “I would not be the person I am today without my amazing mom.”

Asked what it was like to film the sex scene, Polansky noted it was not as fun as it sounds.

“It was actually one of hardest scenes, with all the cameras, lights and everyone in the room. If you think about it, you gotta feel sorry for Stormy Daniels.”

Eric Newman, co-chair of the Special Needs Coalition of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey with his wife Linda, said both the movie and remarks by the talented actors were uplifting but also brought up themes familiar to many parents of autistic young adults.

“Smacking me in the face was realizing again that our amazingly talented young adults will be facing insurmountable odds as they venture to have their own lives once we are gone,” he said. “Let’s keep growing our village of support and love for those who need it most.” 

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