Alien objects by today’s standards such as cassettes or boom boxes are imbued with an indelible sense of nostalgia. Those who remember how irritating it was to have to rewind a mix-tape with a pencil or running out of quarters at the neighborhood arcade understand that - though current technology facilitates most needs - there was a wonderful physicality to those dilemmas. Who hasn’t yearned to return to their simpler, younger years and relive those peculiarities that made them so special? For those growing up in the 80’s there is now hope to go back in the form of a film. Finding magic in the obsolete, Michael Tully’s “Ping Pong Summer” is a cinematic time machine that embraces the visual aesthetics of the time, while unafraid of being a bit messy and over the top.
It’s the summer of 1985 and awkward teen Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) is headed to Ocean City,
Maryland for a family vacation on a budget. His sister, a few years older than him, is a rebellious too-cool-for-cool girl with a fondness for dark
make-up. Their parents surely love them, but they are also great at enhancing the weird emotions that go along with being an adolescent.
Friendless and with not much to do in town besides getting some Cherry+Cola ICEE, Rad is not looking forward to his time there. Luckily, he crosses paths with Teddy Fryy ( Myles Massey), a quirky African American boy who sports an awesome fro. His new best pal introduces him to a mythical arcade known as “Fun Hub.” While playing some friendly ping pong games, Rad must face his nemesis for the summer, rich kid Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and his overly devoted sidekick Dale (Andy Riddle).
Indispensable in every coming-of-age tale, Rad’s love interested is Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley). A classic teenage beauty, she obviously likes to hang around with the wrong crowd. Stacy drinks a mysterious beverage referred to as “funk punch,” which legend has is composed of soda and a hefty serving of Pixy Stix - others believe it may be cocaine. The young hero is too shy to make a move, but when he challenges Lyle to an epic ping pong game, he sees it as a chance to prove himself worthy of her love and defeat his bully. Encouraged by Teddy and Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), a hermit ex-ping pong champion who becomes his sensei à la Mr. Miyagi, Rad is ready to become an arcade legend.
Perfectly designed to bring back a specific vintage look, the film uses a sort of fabricated cheesiness that replicates the mood of those films that may now seem dated. The cynicism moviegoers are used to these days is deflected here with fantastic warmth. It is “The Way Way Back” filtered through a retro lens and sparkled with synthesizers, hip hop beats, colorful pants, and break dancing. Fresh-faced Conte as the self-conscious, innocent, and quiet Rad is endearing and sincerely portrays a nerdy guy from a bygone era trying to find his individuality. Similarly, the supporting cast helps create an atmosphere of corny goodness necessary to buy into the world the film attempts to recreate.
Stylistically Tully grabbed details and distinct visual aspects directly from the media of the time. From the transitions and letter fonts to the wardrobe choices, all serve as an elaborate homage to the fun qualities of 80’s movies. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it really doesn’t offer much uniqueness in terms of story, but undoubtedly works in often hilarious ways. “Ping Pong Summer” is a satisfyingly predictable feel-good bonanza realized with such careful and loving passion for the past that is hard not to fall for its charm. Perhaps the most hilarious period piece (yes, period piece) you’ll see this year.
"Ping Pong Summer" was part of the Champs Elysees Film Festival's US in Progress initiative while in post-production. It then premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
ISA: Film Boutique/U.S. Distribution: Gavitas Ventures (Theatrical), Millennium Entertainment (Home Entertainment)