Paddle Blast From the Past
It’s hard to really dislike director Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer, essentially a sanitized love letter to the 1980s. That’s not necessarily a compliment though, more a shrug of indifference to a moderately amusing tale of an adolescent’s summer. One filled with boom boxes, Nike jumpsuits, and corny kid slang.
Our protagonist is Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte). The time is 1985. The location is Ocean City, Maryland. That means the annual family summer vacation consists of listening to Casey Kasem on car rides, and that getting twenty dollars to spend over three months is Christmas come early.
Soon enough a plot line starts to creep its way in. Rad makes friends with a perky dweeb Teddy (Myles Massey) on his trips to the boardwalk and just as quickly makes enemies with two teenage goons. He also has the hots for Stacy Summers, a blonde magnet with bright eyeliner and a dangerous addiction to sugar.
These encounters don’t really build, they just bounce, from one to the next. Family dinner with Rad’s parents (a kooky pairing of John Hannah and Back to the Future mom Leah Thompson) and his goth sister provide intermittent levity, embarrassing and teasing with their naïve older friends. Amy Sedaris makes a cameo to anchor the generational comedy.
Eventually Rad makes his way to the boardwalk arcade, a surprisingly spare bodied game room featuring a Ping-Pong table. Some harmless fun ensues with Teddy until the two bullies erase their innocent game and turn it into a ball slamming sport. The hero’s journey takes toddler form when Rad feels provoked to enlist the aid of his next-door neighbor, a former Ping-Pong champion now mythical loner named Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon). Soon she’s involved in a silly training montage, like Karate Kid without any stakes.
The redeeming feature Tully provides his movie is that it feels plucked straight from a 1980s video store, back when cassettes were still unique amenities. But Tully can’t really decide if this is all jesting eighties nostalgia or an authentic recreation. The drama isn’t the movie’s primary concern. It’s all about rekindling a feeling.
That’s fine but it leaves a hollow experience. Most of the kids are first time actors and the story’s intrigue slowly loses its carbonation. This would be better as a thirty-minute sitcom, a clean, well-intentioned after-school series. Conte even looks like a kid straight from that era. Rad’s adventures with the paddle could easily be short music videos, too, already filled of scenes saturated with a streaming supply of synth pop and rap.
If Tully were smart, he would have used his biggest asset. Randi Jammer as the foul-mouthed, hard knocks maternal figure is the punch the film desperately needs. But it pulls too many of them. Note for the future: When you have Susan Sarandon signed onto your film, use her as much as you can!