Synopsis: A socially awkward but highly enterprising teenager decides to acquire a “mail order best friend”; a sophisticated exchange student from France. Instead, he ends up importing his personal nightmare, a cologne-soaked, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed youth who quickly becomes the hero of his new community.
Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Justin Hartley, Jennifer Irwin, Paul Braunstein, Jayli Wolf, David Huband
Director: Dan Mazer
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: By coincidence, I was reading a book about John Hughes at the same I was sent a screener for the new high school comedy The Exchange. Perhaps having Hughes at the back of my mind helped, but you don’t have to squint your eyes too hard to see the parallels between the angst-y teenagers from the Hughes-ian ‘80s Chicago suburbs with the ones that filter through screenwriter Tim Long’s Quebec of a similar era. Often, that comparison doesn’t come out in favor of the new kid on the block, but in the case of The Exchange there is an equality of sorts that keeps its sweet sentiment at the forefront and makes it a worthwhile way to spend your evening.
All Tim (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit) wants to find in his tiny Canadian provincial town is someone that appreciates art films as much as he does. Sadly, this is a time when all kids his age wanted was their MTV and the town was more focused on celebrating what they are known for, the white squirrel. With his mother (Jennifer Irwin, The Mortuary Collection) focused on putting together the annual parade to celebrate the mascot and his shop-owner father (Paul Braunstein, Jigsaw) concerned with the economic downturn closing a number of family-run businesses, Tim is largely on his own and fending for himself in a sea of sameness.
Then, his French teacher tells the class about the foreign exchange program and Tim has an idea. Why not host a French student and import some culture not just into his life, but his stagnant family dynamic as well? Not only would it benefit him, but it could help in other ways. In short order, the papers are filled out and the big day comes and that’s when Tim is in for a culture shock he couldn’t have anticipated. Instead of a well-behaved, cultured Frenchman, Tim is matched with Stéphane (Avan Jogia, Shaft), a ribald and free-thinking ball of energy that isn’t anything what Tim expected, but turns out to be precisely what he needs.
It shouldn’t be too hard to predict the direction The Exchange is headed from the start, but credit is given to Long and director Dan Mazer for taking a sunny scenic route to get to their final destination. By spending some time in getting to know more about Tim and Stéphane, we get to see why each has something to offer the other and how their shared experience winds up being beneficial. That’s also helped by the strong casting of Oxenbould and especially Jogia in the trickier than it looks Frenchman-out-of-water in a town that initially accepts him only to turn their back when he’s suspected of a crime he might not have committed. That Stéphane is from a mixed background introduces some race politics in that Hughes wouldn’t have attempted in his day but Long handles it with a light touch, not letting things get too out of hand before drawing the comedy back into the events.
Aside from the two leads, the ever-dependable Irwin is on hand for the typical mom advice but also on a tiny journey of her own as well. That there was time to fit that in during this 93-minute movie mostly focused on the typical bit of raunchy bit of teen romp business was nice to see as well. An arrogant gym coach played by Justin Hartley (A Bad Moms Christmas) might have been good for some cheap laughs but it’s the one character played so arch it felt like a sketch creation rather than the real people the other actors were going for. Hartley’s reach is admirable, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the company. I also thought Jayli Wolf’s eccentric sorta-love interest for Tim was oddball fun as well – it’s definitely a character Hughes would have dotted on his periphery of a high school dance scene and used for a laugh or three.
A rather unexpected surprise (I nearly passed on screening this and am glad I didn’t), The Exchange is a nice retro throwback to the teen classics we love to revisit from the ‘80s…and it doesn’t need to resort to raunch or extremes to find its funny. By keeping things genuine, it remains endearing. I think it’s c’est bon.