Ping Pong Summer
Directed by Michael Tully
In 1985 a summer vacation in Ocean City, Md., changes the life of a shy white teen who's obsessed with table tennis and hip-hop music.
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★★★½ review by Brian Hammons on Letterboxd
I thought this was considerably more enjoyable than many of the reviews I'd read set it up to be. We've had dozens of '80's and even '90's kid/teen nostalgia films come down the pike and many problematically set up their gimmick by forcing in references in a "Remember this!" sort of way that usually comes at a disservice to the story and a mere display of yesteryear artifacts (parachute pants, Rubix cube, and neon colors, oh my!).
I think the tact they used in Ping Pong Summer was instead to attempt to make it feel like an artifact itself of the '80's -- almost like a lost film from that decade that's surfaced after 30 years. A cursory look on Wikipedia backs up my theory surprisingly accurately "They wanted to make a movie that truly captured the 1980s culture and felt like it was an old reel someone had found in a vault." Whatever film stock they used gave it that feel and while the characters were largely archetypes (socially awkward boy rising up to be the hero, the rich jerk bully, the rebelling goth older sister, etc.) they fit within the confines of the story further lending to its credibility at feeling appropriately dated. From the arcade they frequented, to the aura of summer vacations, to Lea Thompson playing the mother role, even technical things like a montage of stills during the first ping pong match that utilized goofy zooms that felt right out of a '87 promotional video, this felt less like a new movie just dressed up in '80's nostalgia and closer to a loving homage to the real thing.
★★★½ review by Steve Pulaski on Letterboxd
Getting used to Michael Tully's Ping Pong Summer is a bit like getting to know and getting used to the lead character of the film. At first, it's a little awkward, being that he bears a different style and different vibes than many of us, but through his motivation, his charming character, and his unabashed innocence, we grow to like him quite a bit and admire his sensibilities that amount through his struggle.
Tully's film is the same way, as its nostalgia-soaked screenplay and excessive use of dated lingo initially makes the film a harder project to adapt to. Not to mention, it's made even harder when the film seems to be throwing nostalgia in our face for no real reason whatsoever other than to remind us how primitive and easier life was back then, as we see closeups of Nike jumpsuits, obnoxiously large boomboxes, and Run D.M.C. cassette tapes here and there. Yet, as the film carries on with its nostalgia and its simple, underdog story, we see the film as a little time capsule of such a period that fittingly respects when it was set and isn't afraid to even subtly critique the time period for all the goofiness and eccentricities it brought forth.
The film stars Marcello Conte as Rad Miracle, a shy teenage boy going on a family vacation to Ocean City, Maryland for the summer of 1985. Despite having relatively no friends, he clings to an equally quirky black kid named Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), who shares his love for rap music and ping pong, the only two things that matter in the minds of these two. The two spend their days roaming around Ocean City, frequenting a place called "The Fun Hub," which is an indoor arcade equipped with ping pong tables, games, drinks, and food - basically all a kid of any time period needs when they're thirteen-years-old. Rad quickly notices and develops a crush on Stacy (Emmi Shockley), an attractive blonde teenager who is often seen sipping on an ICEE. Teddy informs Rad that Stacy is a "funk punch" drinker, which is a drink where people put Pop Rocks or Pixie Sticks (or even Cocaine) into an ICEE to increase the sugar intake or to increase the power of a brain freeze. Ostensibly, this little screenwriting inclusion has no purpose whatsoever, but it only reminds us of the stupid things we did when were kids, mixing drinks (at one point Rad asks for a "suicide" drink at a bar, which is a little bit of every fountain soda mixed together), or creating our own foods to have at snack-time. I remember putting Sweet N Low or Splenda in Diet Coke late at night when I'd have sleepovers with buddies to make us stay up longer.
Moreover, Rad and Teddy eventually attract the attention of two local bullies, one of whom is the son of the richest family in Ocean City. After constant harassment, Rad challenges him to a ping pong duel to see who really is the champion in Ocean City. Meanwhile, Rad and Teddy engage in some fun of their own, even going to the beach with Stacy and Stacy's other friend, along with just trying to come to terms that this friendship is only temporary.
Ping Pong Summer plays a lot of the same instruments as last year's coming of age marvel The Way, Way Back, who focused on a lonely teenager who went on a vacation with his family, hated his mom's boyfriend and all the smarmy adults that surrounded him, and found solace working at a waterpark with all the eccentric locals who were his coworkers. The core difference in both films is that The Way, Way Back touched on harsher issues, such as family relations, isolation, and solace within a group of people you'll never see again in a way that was levied by the aforementioned theme. Ping Pong Summer keeps it simple, with waves of nostalgia making up for the lack of really any underlying ideas of loneliness; we don't have the feeling that Rad is destined to be alone forever, but he has yet to find his in-crowd. Duncan, the main character in The Way, Way Back, we could believe may be alone in life for a very, very long time.
Ping Pong Summer may not be as deep as its other films of the genre, and it may try too hard to get by on the superficiality of its time period, but it is a shockingly entertaining film on the basis that its actors are all on par with the material (even Susan Sarandon, who really exercises her role nicely), the decor and aesthetic of the time period is artfully done, and even the final battle, while obligatory, has one cheering internally or externally for the lead character. Bottom line, the film is a lot of fun, and much like the summer that our lead characters are experiencing, we reflect on the experience with certain joy.
Starring: Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Emmi Shockley, John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris, Robert Longstreet, and Susan Sarandon. Directed by: Michael Tully.
★★★½ review by Tee Emm on Letterboxd
A fun homage to the 80s movies anyone my age grew up on. Fantastic attention to period detail & delicious use of the genre's storytelling tropes, full on cheesy synth soundtrack, montages & a typically 80s freeze frame ending. Some great comic performances from the unknown kids & looking glorious & authentic on 16mm film. Really perked me up after a long day.
★★★½ review by Adam Lemke on Letterboxd
This is how you you do a retro throwback.
★★★★ review by Benn Ray on Letterboxd
A heartwarming, family-friendly coming of age tale set in a 1980s Ocean City in which the town itself becomes a character. Sarandon steals scenes as a beer-drinking former ping pong champ turned OC fisherwoman. The cast of kids are lovable. It's sort of like One Crazy Summer + Karate Kid as done by a young Wes Anderson. All the details are perfect - the music, the fashion, the backgrounds, the awkwardness of the kids, etc. Utterly charming.
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