'The Exchange' Delivers Laughs While Mocking Canada's Racism Directed by Dan Mazer
Starring: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Jennifer Irwin, Justin Hartley
Published Jul 30, 2021The triptych poster for Borat co-creator Dan Mazer's The Exchange is a bit confusing. Looking at it after seeing the movie, you feel jolted, thinking, "Oh yeah, that guy is in the movie, too." This is perhaps not the best reaction to elicit from audiences, but it's the one The Exchange gets. This is a movie that does well what it's set out to do, but then blunders a third unnecessary storyline. Insofar as The Exchange is about a French exchange student, it's good — why on earth is that third dude there?
The plot is pretty self-explanatory, until it's not. Written by Tim Long (writer and producer on The Simpsons), The Exchange takes place in the '80s and is about a high schooler named Tim Long (Ed Oxenbould) who loves the French New Wave and hates his small, snow-encrusted Ontario town of Hobart. (There has never been another teenager in the history of the world, fictional or otherwise, who loves the French New Wave as much as Tim does.) No worries, as the town hates Tim back. Tim has no friends except for the endlessly lovable Brenda (Jayli Wolf), who has a big crush on him. His French teacher tells him about an exchange program that will allow his family to host a student from Paris, and Tim eagerly signs up, thinking he'll be paired with a soul as ennui-soaked as he is. Instead, Tim gets riotous, raunchy, working-class and very not-white Stéphane (Avan Jogia). Hilarity ensues as an unexpected friendship is formed.
Good so far, right?
Then for some reason there's the extraneous, villainous character of Rothbauer (Justin Hartley). who's simultaneously the high school gym teacher (he's Stéphane's soccer coach) and volunteer town sheriff. He has very few scenes alongside Tim in the movie, but the plot seems to hinge on his affected weirdness. Rothbauer is like if Will Farrell was playing a supporting character in Napoleon Dynamite just for the heck of it, was perennially clad in a tracksuit, and was, somehow, more annoying than usual. Hartley's portrayal is okay, but this character seems as unnecessary as a hangnail. Rothbauer's motivations in this movie are unknown: he's inexplicably bitter and hateful toward everyone, weirdly sexual, makes jokes that no one but him finds funny, and is always everywhere even though you wish he wasn't.
Back to the good part.
The wonderful thing about Mazer is his ability to direct jokes that land at the expense of racists. The Exchange doesn't gloss over the slimy racism that oozes through Canada, and is very aware of how Jogia brings out the characters' ugly side.
Jogia as Stéphane is amazing, endearing and impossible to not watch — so it's slightly unfortunate that this character exists insofar as he is a foil for Tim (who's boring, but that's the point), but isn't shown to benefit from the growth and newness he experiences in Hobart. Stéphane's dark past is only hinted at, and it's a shame he was fleshed out more. Jogia is more than capable of playing both the slapstick, sex-obsessed teen and the troubled youth. Stéphane, from his outsider's perspective, shows the town for what it is. Despite his turbulent upbringing, Stéphane is delightfully optimistic, while Tim is full of borrowed upper-class French pessimism. Where Tim sees the town as a dead end of opportunity, Stéphane is excited about all the newness he experiences, even as he punctures Hobart's dusty old ways.
Oxenbould as Tim is pitch perfect — pathetic, kind of annoying, and in dire need of some teenage fun. Then there's the amazing, beguiling, hilarious Jennifer Irwin (of Superstore and Schitt's Creek) as Tim's mother Sheila. I could watch a movie centring on Sheila and Stéphane forever. (Don't ask me what the plot would be — I don't know.) There's just something about Irwin that is capable of making you cry from both laughter and sorrow — she's that good of an actor, and this movie takes full advantage of her skill. We get just the right amount of Sheila, and that's the way it ought to be. Sheila desperately wants Tim to have a good time, loves Stéphane, and is utterly supportive of the two.
The Exchange could be perfect if it contained just this dynamic — Stéphane and Tim, flanked by Sheila, against Hobart. But then there's freaking Rothbauer, throwing a wrench into everything. Watch this movie for Jogia and Irwin, and maybe just ignore Rothbauer if you can. (Elevation)