The sweet-natured, low-key comedy The Exchange does not claim to be based on a true story, but I think we can conclude that there are some real-world parallels.
Exhibit A: The screenplay is by Tim Long, a long-time writer for The Simpsons who was born in Brandon, Man., in 1969, but grew up in Exeter, a small town in Ontario, self-proclaimed “Home of the White Squirrel.”
Exhibit B: The screenplay sets the action in a fictional town it calls “Hobart, Ontario, Godforsaken Canada, 1986.” The protagonist, one Tim Long, is attending high school and awaiting the annual parade, in which the town mascot, a white squirrel, will be the centrepiece.
Coincidence? I think not. Now, was the real Tim Long a hapless nerd, saddled with even dorkier parents, picked on by all and sundry, and an applicant for a student exchange program, wanting to host a French student and perhaps benefit from a kind of contact coolness?
Well, I hope things weren’t that bad for him, but in this version, that’s Tim (Ed Oxenbould), who also quietly yearns for his equally nerdish schoolmate Brenda (Jayli Wolf) but can’t figure out how to talk to her. And his plans for coolness go awry when Stéphane (Avan Jogia) arrives from Paris and turns out to be an over-sexed, potty-mouthed, football-obsessed horndog. This makes Stéphane popular with the student body – well, most of them, and for a while at least – but Tim soon realizes that he’s now just living in the shadow of his would-be “best friend.”
As directed by Dan Mazer (a writer/director with credits on a lot of Borat and other Sacha Baron Cohen projects), The Exchange pokes gentle fun at that triumvirate of backwardness that is 1980s/small-town/Ontario.
Hobart/Exeter, played by the similarly sized Almonte near Ottawa, exists in the kind of time and place where the high school gym teacher (Justin Hartley, rocking an impressive ’80s ’do-and-’stash combo) doubles as the local police chief. (The real sheriff is one town over in Wingham, an actual place.) It’s where townsfolk consider their dentist, an Egyptian-born Canadian, to be an exotic representation of Africa. It’s where world cuisine consists of French toast – “or I guess you would just call it toast,” someone says to the foreigner in their midst.
The film resolves itself into a simple Gen-X coming-of-age story, with a mild critique against racism (however well intentioned) and some fun period humour. (When Tim’s dot-matrix printer starts rattling away in his room, his father suggests he’s pleasuring himself with the computer. When his mother asks how that’s even possible, he predicts: “They’ll find a way.”)
The Exchange is ultimately a little thin, inviting comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, say, without ever quite stacking up to it. But it’s hard to hate a film whose heart is so obviously in the right place. And Tim Long (both of them) have had enough pain in their lives without me coming down too hard on this story.
The Exchange opens July 30 in cinemas.
2.5 stars out of 5