Part sweetly predictable coming-of-age story, part loving 80’s movie throwback, “Ping Pong Summer” sits in that comfortable spot between empty nostalgia and cloying earnestness.
Newcomer Marcello Conte stars as the chippily-named Rad Miracle, a shy 13-year-old spending his 1985 summer vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, along with his parents (Lea Thompson and John Hannah) and brooding sister (Helena Seabrook). With his twin loves of ping-pong and break dancing, he gets a crush on an older dream girl (Emmi Shockley), makes a new rap-loving best friend (Myles Massey), and faces down a local bully with help of the strange lady who lives next door (Susan Sarandon). There are also cameos from Amy Sedaris and Judah Friedlander (of “30 Rock”).
Writer/director Michael Tully has set out to make an 80’s movie that is largely absent of the scourge of contemporary winking irony. “Ping Pong Summer” is an 80’s movie that could have actually been made in the 80’s. He treats his situations and characters straight-on, with no nudges of modern sensibility, and for the first half, carries it off.
He’s chosen an ideal location in Ocean City, MD, parts of which look like they are still stuck in 1985. The costuming and soundtrack selections are evocative without being too on the nose, and the slightly washed-out look of the cinematography by Wyatt Garfield looks of a piece with the setting and time period. Parachute pants have never looked better, or been more lovingly photographed. And look quick for the DeLorean in the parking lot.
Tully also demonstrates some nice turns of quirky, unexpected humor. There’s a glorious tracking shot down a buffet table that says everything you need to know about the $6.99 smorgasboard in Ocean City. I liked the oddball walk-on characters, like the sunburnt guy sitting naked on a pile of ice in his sink, Friedlander’s bored but helpful convenience store guy, and Sedaris’ unsettling, bathing-suited aunt. Though “Pong” is subtler, gentler in approach, these touches of off-center humor put me in mind of that cult 80’s comedy with John Cusack, “One Crazy Summer.” Go figure the films that stick with you from watching HBO in that decade.
The filmmakers capture the importance of certain small things to a 13-year-old, like suitcase-sized boomboxes, mixing flavors at the Slushy machine, or the first-look awesomeness of video arcades in the days before consoles. More importantly, the overall feeling of untouched magic that a summer vacation town might have for youth not yet spoiled by knowingness.
“Ping Pong Summer” spends its first half balancing storyline with these charming bite-size nuggets of atmosphere and humor. But that spell doesn’t hold up when the underdog plot has to work through to its big ping pong match conclusion. Tully’s script cuts some corners in the rest of Rad’s family, and Sarandon’s character is disappointingly underwritten. I was quickly bored by the obvious bully characters, expecting some new twist that never came. Casting the leads with young local actors gives the film a fresh, naturalistic feel, but also some distracting, uneven performances.
But there is still lots to like here, an innocence that works despite the limitations. The sincerity of the filmmakers’ approach wins out in the end, overcoming routine with the best of intentions.
The Blu-ray of “Ping Pong Summer” is presented in a serviceable 16×9 widescreen format. There are options for English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The audio track is Dolby True HD, and the mix of background music and dialogue is well handled.
- a funny, deadpan making-of featurette call “Lazer Beach: The Making of Ping Pong Summer”
- a worthwhile, informative commentary track with director Michael Tully and producer George Rush
“Ping Pong Summer” can’t keep it together for its entirety, but the first half works a treat in its oddball humor and irony-free nostalgia.