Producers: Dane Hine, Christina Piovesan and Noah Segal   Director: Dave Mazer   Screenplay: Tim Long   Cast: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Jennifer Irwin, Paul Braunstein, Jayli Wolf, Justin Hartley, David Huband, Kathryn Greenwood, Jack Quail, Jack Beeston, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll and Gavin Johnstone   Distributor: Quiver Distribution

Grade: C-

A teen comedy in which the groans vie in number with the laughs, “The Exchange” boasts an intriguing pedigree: writer Tim Long worked for years on “The Simpsons” and was head writer on David Letterman’s show, while director Dave Mazer is a long-time colleague of Sacha Baron Cohen, having worked with him on the “Borat” movies. But their collaboration proves a weak attempt at what amounts to a John Hughes high-school clone, with a fish-out-of-water plot and a commendable but heavy-handed message about embracing difference rather than recoiling from it.

There’s some similarity to “Weird Science” in the screenplay, set in the small, economically depressed Ontario town of Hobart in 1986, though Long eschews the sci-fi element and replaces Hughes’s sexy manufactured woman with a hunky real guy who happens to be foreign.  The main character, whose name is the same as the screenwriter’s, is a smart but nerdy teen who’s dissed by almost all his classmates—even the kid in a wheelchair tells him to buzz off.  The only person his own age who wants to be friends is bespectacled Brenda (Jayli Wolf), a girl just as much a pariah as he is, whose strident efforts to get close to him Tim awkwardly resists. 

Tim thinks he’s found salvation in a foreign student exchange program with France that his parents, perky Sheila (Jennifer Irwin) and struggling tractor salesman Glenn (Paul Braunstein), agree to participate in.  Tim looks forward to welcoming a sophisticated, brainy European that he’ll be able to hold intelligent conversations with on the subjects that fascinate him—French New Wave Cinema, for example. 

But who should show up but Stéphane (Avan Jogia), a loud, sex-crazed hedonist with a penchant for porn flicks, a love of pop music, an earring and fashion taste that invite stares and blushes among the locals.  Tim is horrified, especially when Stéphane becomes the toast of not just the campus but the whole town, the girls falling all over him and most guys appreciating his soccer skills; even super-egotistical coach-and-cop Gary Rothbauer (Justin Hartley) is impressed, despite the fact that Stéphane threatens his self-proclaimed alpha-male status.  Things reach a peak when, after Stéphane saves Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend from being struck by a fellow trying to commit suicide by jumping from a roof (not to worry, he lands in the snow), he’s treated as a hero, and it’s decided to make him the centerpiece of Hobart’s White Squirrel Festival as a tribute to the town’s warm welcome of outsiders.  Over time even Tim can’t resist the guy’s goofy good nature and desire to please.

Such harmony can’t go on forever, of course, Tim has a falling out with Stéphane when his guest tries to assist his love life in a way that’s unintentionally humiliating, and the town turns on him when someone starts a rumor about him being a possible terrorist, and he’s accused of sabotaging the Festival preparations.  Naturally the clouds will pass, the true villain will be unmasked, Stéphane’s efforts to encourage Tim that Brenda is his soulmate will succeed, and the two will become fast friends by the time the flight for France departs.  A credits sequence even shows Tim visiting Stéphane in Paris.

“The Exchange” avoids the raunchy excess of all too many teen comedies, and its message about not judging a book by its cover and accepting the differences among people is unexceptionable.  But Long’s writing is more often dumb than insightful, and Mazer’s direction is lackluster, leaving the cast pretty much stranded.  They all struggle mightily to create humor where little exists, but often go overboard in the attempt.  Oxenbould’s effort to emulate the hyperactive young Anthony Michael Hall gets wearying after awhile, and while Jogia manages to keep Stéphane more likable than egregious, even his act gets tiresome after awhile. 

The rest of the cast are stuck in parts that are no more than stereotypes, and not very amusing ones.  The person who suffers most is Hartley, whose determination to make Gary obnoxious succeeds only too well from the very start.  One imagines that Mazer might have seen a bit of the “Borat” formula at work here, but the audacity of those movies sprang from the fact that Cohen’s clueless character was interacting spontaneously with equally clueless real people, while here Stéphane is confronting exaggerated cardboard cutouts in ways that that come out of a sitcom writer’s handbook. 

There is one instance in which the conceit works, though—that’s the character of Egyptian-Canadian Dr. Moe (Shant Srabian), who knows from experience that the town’s pretense of tolerance for outsiders is a sham.  When he chortles over the suggestion toward the close, the movie’s obvious implication that xenophobia is as palpable north of the U.S.-Canadian border as south of it comes home nicely. 

Except for sluggish editing by Mark Davies that’s of a piece with Mazer’s slack direction, “The Exchange” is technically adequate, with Jean-Philippe Bernier’s cinematography and Nigel Churcher’s production design okay despite indications that this was a rather inexpensive production.  The score by Michael Smith and Christopher Bauschiner is even better, incorporating as it does pop tunes of the eighties to good effect. 

But while “The Exchange” can be congratulated for not being mean-spirited or grossly crude, it doesn’t manage to be very funny, either.