‘Nothing in Exchange’ (‘A cambio de nada’): Film Review

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
A feelgood movie that both critiques the way we treat our outsiders and also celebrates them

Spaniard Daniel Guzman’s disaffected teens debut won Best Film and Best Director at the recent Malaga fest

It’s long been tough to be a Spanish teen, and down the years, movies by the likes of Fernando Leon, Achero Manas, and Montxo Armendariz have excitingly shown it. Now comes actor Daniel Guzman, making his notable directorial debut with the down-to-earth but upbeat Nothing in Exchange, the compassionate, richly-observed comic tale of two buddies determined to beat their circumstances. The film makes its unpalatable truths about working class Spanish lives taste somewhat sweeter by adding judicious quantities of sugar, but not so much that it becomes sickly: the result is that you pay your money and in exchange, you get a high-energy, feel-good movie with the warmest of hearts.

Exchange's Malaga awards should be followed up by further prizes and screenings, with the film looking set to be one of Spain's critical and popular successes for 2015.

Dario (a lively, fast-talking Miguel Herran) and the physically considerably larger, nay immense Luismi (Antonio Bachiller, who won best supporting actor in Malaga for his accurate, engaging portrayal of someone probably not too different from himself) are good-hearted, entirely credible teens who, Guzman’s script implies, have been driven to misbehavior by society.

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In Dario’s case, his family is breaking down around him, with his parents (Maria Miguel and the high-profile Luis Tosar) in open conflict, and an indifferent educational system fails to respond to his obvious intelligence and vitality. Our anti-heroes spent their time playing hooky, stealing clothes, and stealing car parts which they then sell on to down-on-his luck, eternally optimistic mechanic Justo (the under-recognized Felipe Garcia Velez), a kind of sly-winking surrogate father to Dario who’d be speaking a rich Cockney accent if he were British.

When Dario runs briefly away from home, he encounters Antonia (Antonia Guzman), a three-wheeler-driving third-ager who rifles through trash cans for junk which she then sells from her stall on Madrid’s Rastro flea market. Unconsciously, Dario is putting together some kind of alternate family -- but his plan breaks down when Justo is arrested and jailed for not paying his debts. Bail is set at the impossibly high sum of about $11,000 -- and Dario decides he’s going to find the money.

His attempts to do so are heartbreaking in their futility but also rich in comedy. The humor in Exchange, whether verbal or visual, works because it’s based on Guzman’s observations of real people, not just because he thinks it’s funny. Indeed, Antonia is played by his own welll-observed and played grandmother, who is a sprightly 93 years old. Cue audience sympathy: there’s a mini-tradition in Spanish film of people hiring colorful, non-pro family members. Witness Pedro Almodovar’s repeated use of his mother in his films, and more recently Paco Leon’s of his.

Antonio gets some great lines, as does Justo, but Justo’s character is blighted by a disease that mildly infects the whole project. In the script’s keenness to please, both Justo and the other main characters, as well as several scenes, come over as slightly over the top, their contrived larger-than-lifeness briefly and damagingly straying into the incredible.

When Dario visits Justo in jail, for example, it’s implausible that the latter would be just so damn upbeat, even given his engaging, limitless capacity for optimism. Likewise Luismi’s dog, eternally frustrated in its attempts to make doggie love to much larger beasts, is amusing, but only seem to be there for the comic effect.

And the story presses forward too urgently: when it takes its time, as in one deliciously tender scene when Dario clips Antonia’s toenails because she has difficulty reaching them, it briefly becomes another film altogether, suggesting that one day Guzman, debuting here, will one day be able to go deep as well as wide. It’s also worth noting that the film is a visual homage to Madrid, encompassing both the grey, anonymous outskirts where the characters live to and vibrant center where the action is to be found, and where the protags go when seeking escape.

But finally, the naturalness and the unspoken conditional love of the relationship between the two central characters is the key to Nothing in Exchange. It's a relationship summed up in the film's wonderful, perfectly-judged final frame. Dario and Luismi, though of course they'd never use the word, love one another; the script loves them both; and Guzman ensures that a lot of that love is transferred from the screen to the spectator. When that happens in a movie, its flaws no longer seem to matter.

Production companies: Amir, El Nino Producciones, La Competencia, La Mirada Oblicua, Luis Perez Gil, Telefonica Studios, Ulula Films, ZircoZine
Cast: Miguel Herran, Antonio Bachiller, Felipe Garcia Velez, Antonia Guzman, Luis Tosar, Maria Miguel
Director, screenwriter: Daniel Guzman
Executive producers: Daniel Guzman, Miriam Ruiz Mateos, Inigo Perez-Tabernero, Cesar Rodríguez
Director of photography: Josu Inchaustegui
Production designer: Anton Laguna
Costume designer: Maria del Carmen Perez
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Sales: Warner Bros
No rating, 93 minutes