Last May, Sarah was “discovered” by a Columbia University film director. Director Rachel Israel was looking for someone to play opposite a young man with Asperger’s and Tourette’s Syndrome in her thesis film.  She had already auditioned 100 neurotypical actresses when she noticed Sarah at the Jewish Community Center’s program for young adults with disabilities. Rachel offered Sarah an opportunity few people on the autistic spectrum ever receive: the chance to audition for a movie. The timing couldn’t have been better because Sarah had just been rejected from Pace’s very competitive Musical Theatre Program.

      “Mom, I just wanted to keep you posted,” Sarah announced, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “I was asked to audition for a movie.  It’s for the female lead!” Her tone was exuberant, as though the part was already hers.

     “That’s nice, dear.”  I replied, trying to sound encouraging.   Over the years, Sarah had auditioned for every camp and school play.  Even at those auditions, where she had competed against other kids with disabilities, she usually ended up with small parts (if any).  How could Sarah—with no professional training or experience– have any chance at all competing with mainstream actresses?  We’d always been too busy with therapy and tutoring to pursue acting lessons.   But Sarah loved attention and being in the limelight, and so in spite of all the rejection, she pursued every audition that came her way with undaunted enthusiasm.

     “Rachel says she thinks I’m just right for the part.”  Sarah was beaming

      “Well, don’t get your hopes up too much.”  I cautioned.

      A few call backs later, Sarah burst through our front door.  “Rachel wants me for the part! I’m going to be the female lead.  I gave her your number.  She’s going to call you, Momma!”  Sarah was squealing. 

      When Rachel called, I realized filming was going to be a logistical nightmare.   Sarah had already signed up to take Pace’s required Computer Science course over the summer, and had also committed to volunteering as an assistant at the Learning Spring, a school for young autistic spectrum kids.  Rehearsals and filming would overlap both these summer activities, but somehow we would have to squeeze it in. 

     “Sarah’s thrilled to have this opportunity,” I told the director. “But her academics have to come first.   Unless you’re willing to work around her schedule, I don’t see how she can possibly do all of this.”

      Rachel was willing, but I still had my doubts.
     “Sarah, you have an awful lot on your plate already,” I reasoned with my daughter.   “You have classes, tutoring, homework and a final exam.  On top of that, are you willing to commit hours and hours of time to rehearsal and filming, traveling all over the city? Then there will be 6 days of filming, one of them 14 hours and until 3 AM.  You’ll be exhausted.  This is a big commitment.  Once you make it, you can’t change your mind.  Rachel will be depending on you.”

      “Please Momma, I want to do it,” my Energizer Bunny replied.  “You know I always get my work done, and I don’t mind being tired.  I don’t want to disappoint Rachel.”

      How could I say no?

      True to her word, Sarah juggled all of her commitments.   Miraculously, she earned an “A” in Computer Science course, worked as many hours as Rachel needed, and still managed to show up on time for her job at 8:15 AM every day.  

     I was proud of her then, but now that I’ve seen the film, you could say I’m bursting.

     On May 3rd, Sarah made her film debut in “Keep the Change” at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on the opening night of Columbia University’s Film Festival.  From the moment Sarah appeared with her flushed cheeks matching her pink dress, it was clear to me that the camera loved my daughter’s face. The way the sunlight fell on her skin brought out her inner warmth.  For fifteen minutes, Sarah was a shimmering presence on the big screen.   But that was just the beginning for our family star. After the showing, Sarah was photographed and answered questions with rest of the cast and crew.  Then it was on to a celebratory dinner at P.J. Clarke’s, where she basked in the compliments of friends and family.  Her twin brother Max came from college in the midst of final papers and his thesis to see Sarah’s fifteen minutes of fame.   

     The party was over, or was it?  A few days later Rachel told me “Keep the Change” had been selected by Columbia’s students and faculty for two more screenings, at the university and at the Paris Theatre for “Awards Night.”  After that, the movie would go on to the Los Angeles film festival in June. 

     “Do you think “our” film could win something?”  I asked, trying to contain my excitement.

     “I’ve gotten good feed-back, so I think it has a chance.” Rachel was soft-spoken, but I could hear the hope in her voice.

     “Great! I’ll see you at The Paris Theatre on May 9th.”  Was this a dream, or was my grown-up, baby girl actually co-starring in a film shown first at Lincoln Center and then at the Paris, where it had been nominated for awards?

     Last night I lived the second half of the dream at the Paris—a beautiful theatre where I’d always seen great foreign films.  This time I saw six student films and waited to see my daughter’s face in the fifth.   “Keep the Change” was even better the second time—sweeter and more nuanced—or maybe I was more relaxed because I knew what to expect.   But some of the other films were also beautifully done, shot in exotic places like Shanghai.  How could I be objective?

     The awards ceremony seemed to last forever.   Awards for producers, directors and screenplays in various categories were handed out to a parade of strangers.   Rachel did not win for best female director.  She must have been bitterly disappointed.   I know I was, until the very last—and perhaps biggest award—for “Best Film” of the film festival was called.  And Rachel won!

     Sarah, her co-star, Brandon , and their friends,  leaped from their second row seats to applaud and whoop with delight as Rachel went to the stage.  It was a victory for a director with the courage and sensitivity to cast young adults with disabilities and bring out the best in them.  What a glorious moment it was for all of us!

     While Sarah’s first fifteen minutes of film may be over, who knows what the future holds?   Rachel is submitting “Keep the Change” to other film festivals, and she has plans to expand it into a full-length feature film.   Maybe one day Sarah will be like Marlee Matlin, uniquely qualified by her ASD to play certain roles.   A pipe dream, perhaps.  But indulge me, at least for fifteen minutes.



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