In “The Exchange,” now on VOD, teenager Tim Long (Ed Oxenbould) was born and has lived his entire life in a small Ontario town, but feels like an outsider. Obsessed with all things French, he’s a student of Camus, worships Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, and looks down on his school mates and even family. The feeling is mutual. “Bookworm” and “loser” are two of the nicer jabs thrown his way. “Everyone hates you,” says Gary (Justin Hartley) the school’s soccer coach. The only person Tim really likes is Brenda (Jayli Wolf), who is unaware of his crush.
Craving sophisticated company, he signs up for an exchange program to acquire a “mail order best friend.” He’s hoping the exchange student will be a Gallic breath of fresh air in his stale little town. But instead of an erudite tour guide to all thing French he gets Stéphane (Avan Jogia), a teenage chain-smoking horndog more interested in girls than Gruyère Gougères.
After making a splash in town Stéphane’s behavior soon starts to raise eyebrows until he finds an unlikely supporter.
“The Exchange” is based on a true story. Screenwriter Tim Long, a Canadian from Manitoba who has been the consulting producer of “The Simpsons” for twenty plus years, adapts his own awkward friendship with an exchange student as the basis for the story. I’m sure characters are amplified and situations blown out of proportion, but underneath it all “The Exchange” is a feel-good story with laughs and a great deal of heart.
It’s lighthearted but that doesn’t prevent “The Exchange” from adding denser textures to the story. Near the end Long and director Dan Mazer (longtime writing partner of Sacha Baron Cohen) tackle the xenophobia that informs the latter part of the movie. After a brief moment of celebrity in town, the tide turns against Stéphane due to veiled racism. He is, as the Gallophile Tim might have said, l’étranger, an outsider whose motives are questioned, simply because he wasn’t born in the local hospital. It gets sorted—“We drew certain conclusions about you being different,” a character says to him—and is handled delicately, but in our divided times it hits the nail on the head.
Ultimately “The Exchange” works because it is about empathy. It’s funny, with the kind of premise that could have been sitcom fodder, but beyond the laughs is a bigger message of acceptance.