Article By: Dan Clark
Writer and director Michael Tully’s latest film Ping Pong Summer has such a strong personal connection a more apt title may be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation—in 1985”. Tully is clearly a product of the 80’s and Ping Pong Summer is a radical reflection of that. This eighties-sploitation encapsulates what made the 1980’s such an infamous decade—including homages of everything from Karate Kid to Fast Time at Ridgemont High to everyone’s favorite Rad. While the references are intriguing and varied, not enough is done to forge its own legacy.
In the film Marcello Conte plays Rad Miracle, a teenager obsessed with hip hop and ping-pong. He brings his obsession on his annual family vacation to Ocean City, Maryland. There he discovers a new world with an entire group of people. He becomes quick friends with Teddy Fryy, who also shares his love for hip hop, but he also finds his fair share of problems including becoming the target of the local rich kid bullies. In true 80’s fashion it was a summer full of extremes, from ultimate high of your first true love to the ultimate low of complete rejection. All of these events eventually crescendo into an epic ping-pong showdown to prove who is truly the baddest of them all.
Tully filled the cast with a mixture of Hollywood veterans, like Back to the Future star Lea Thompson, and inexperienced young talent who have not been alive long enough to understand the vast majority of the slang they are speaking. For a first time actor Marcello Conte comes on rather strong. Conte is not required to do any deep emoting, but he has the shy innocence to make the part work. Seeing his false confidence implode when his favorite pair of pants are openly mocked is heart wrenching to witness. He is such a likeable character it is difficult to not want to route for him. He has a strong fanaticism for hip hop and ping-pong and is not afraid to show, even if it causes him to be ostracized by his peers.
The plot’s framework follows the same path as your typical underdog sports story. Conte starts as the outcast loser who gets embarrassed by the more talented snotty rich kid. In order for the overly evil antagonist to get his comeuppance Rad enlists the help of the local weirdo who also happens to be a former ping-pong champion. Susan Sarandon plays the Mr. Miyagi to Marcello Conte’s Danny. Sarandon does enough with what ends up being a rather shortchanged role. In fact the entire ping-pong storyline is mostly an afterthought to the very end. Tully relies far too heavily on our familiarity with the format to make everything work as strongly as he intended. He casts a wide net creating an assortment of colorful characters, but the conflict is often all over the place it feels like chunks of other movies rather than its own unique creation.
Anyone who lived through the 1980’s will find this a reminiscing feast. Everything from the overgrown boom boxes to the highly energized arcades to the occasional break dance-off will make you feel like you are back in the day of Members Only Jackets and Casey Kasem Top 40 hits. This was not just a retro shot of random references. Tully and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield also used techniques like split screens and freeze frames along with some clever musical choices to make it feel like it was actually made back in 1985.
With its cartoonish characters, teenage melodrama, and love of pop culture Ping Pong Summer comes off as a well-produced Nickelodeon television movie. Some may see that as a slight against the film’s quality; however in reality that is very much the feel it is attempting. A movie the celebrates the on-the-nose drama of our childhood favorite films. Regrettably it gets lost in its own tribute as it never becomes more than a sum of other people’s parts. It is a rerun full of genuine admiration for a unique place in time, and like a rerun you have seen it all before.