The Exchange centers on Tim Long (Ed Oxenbould) a teenager in small-town Canada in 1986 who chafes against his fellow residents’ lack of sophistication. This has resulted in an isolated, friendless existence where Tim would rather hang out with the curmudgeonly janitor at City Hall than kids his own age at the local hockey rink. Hoping to finally meet someone worldly he can strike up a true friendship with, Tim applies for a French student exchange program.
However, instead of the cultured Parisian teen he expected, Tim finds himself hosting his own personal nightmare: Stéphane (Avan Jogia), a confident, chain-smoking, sexually promiscuous charmer who has no interest in conjugating French verbs or discussing the films of Godard and Truffaut with him. At first, Tim can’t believe his bad luck and rejects Stéphane out of hand even as the rest of the town embraces the foreigner. It isn’t long before things take a turn though, and both Tim and the rest of the town’s citizens must learn to accept those who are different than them.
While in its initial moments, The Exchange seems to be setting itself up as a wry, coming-of-age raunchfest, it’s actually a lot sweeter and more earnest than that. There’s some fun culture clash humor as Tim and Stéphane feel each other out and attempt to live with one other. Ultimately though, after some initial originality, the film shaves off its rough edges and takes a turn for the formulaic.
This is a bit surprising considering The Exchange was written by Tim Long (who based the screenplay on his experiences growing up in Canada), a writer and producer for The Simpsons, and directed by Dan Mazer, who also helmed Dirty Grandpa and is a long-time collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen’s. But instead of the cutting insights or vulgar observations that are a hallmark of much of Long and Mazer’s past work, The Exchange evolves into a light comedy with a pat message, that never delves too deeply into thornier issues like the economic troubles the town is facing and the difficulties Stéphane was having at home in France. This makes it considerably less amusing or memorable than similar coming-of-age films, such as Superbad or American Pie.
That’s a shame because the game cast seems like it would be up for anything. Jogia goes all in on Stéphane, turning what could have been an obnoxious caricature into an appealing rascal with a genuinely good heart. The developing relationship between his and Oxenbould’s character is the lynchpin of the film, and the actors do a fantastic job playing off one another as they both grow and change based on their experiences together. Meanwhile, Jennifer Irwin and Paul Braunstein as Tim’s parents Sheila and Glenn, and Jayli Wolf as his love interest Brenda lean into the absurdities of their quirky characters and their circumstances while conveying enough grounded emotion to make them feel sympathetic and real.
The Exchange is a heartwarming film that elicits more smiles than laugh out loud moments. Yet while it doesn’t break any new ground, its depiction of a specific time and place combined with likable characters who are easy to root for makes it a pleasant way to pass an hour and a half.