Thursday, June 12, 2014

I Love the '80s: "Ping Pong Summer" a slight but sweet love letter

Ping Pong Summer (2014)
92 min., not rated (but equivalent to PG-13).

Scrappy coming-of-age summer comedy "Ping Pong Summer" has the misfortune of coming after 2013's "The Way Way Back" and 2009's Adventureland," two subjectively familiar and superior films. While it doesn't quite nail the engaging, well-formed characters of its aforementioned predecessors, writer-director Michael Tully's film is so totally steeped in 1980s nostalgia and brimming with boomboxes, parachute pants and Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" that it will automatically be catnip to Generation Xers. It is sweetly silly and endearing, if a little wan and old-hat, but anyone who is tired of tributes to the '80s is probably no fun or an old curmudgeon. "Ping Pong Summer" is played with both sincerity and air-quote irony, so for better or for worse, it looks and feels like a movie locked inside a time capsule from nearly three decades ago.

It's the summer of 1985 in Mount Airy, Maryland, and time for the Miracle family's vacation to Ocean City. Packing his red parachute pants, Nike sneaks and ping pong paddle, introverted 13-year-old Radford (Marcello Conte)—"Rad" for short—his goth older sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook) and their parents (John Hannah, Lea Thompson) rent out a beach house. It's a whole thing, but during his vacation, he makes double-quick friends with wannabe rapper Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), finds a dream girl in the Pixy Stix-addicted Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), bumps heads at the Fun Hub arcade with a preppy bully Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his rascally toady (Andy Riddle), and learns how to master his sport of choice with the "ball making contact" motto of neighbor Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), a ping pong champion who's now seen as the weird lady in town.

Like how Rad tries to breakdance, moonwalk, and conquer "The Worm," "Ping Pong Summer" constantly rides the line between cool and enthusiastically dorky. Writer-director Tully clearly has dear affection for the era, even if the film initially tries too hard and wavers between mocking parody and a loving reconstruction of the genuine article. Once the film settles down yet still giddily indulges in the summery '80s details, the proceedings breeze along with a quirky, charming spirit. For what it's worth, Tully and his production collaborators earn brownie points for re-creating the innocent, fun-loving and brightly colored period without making it tackier than it already was. The shaggy, unpolished production values coincide with a drool-worthy, retro-stylish credit sequence, among other editing flourishes, and an infectious era-specific soundtrack ("Stick 'Em" by The Fatboys and "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger). 

In his film debut, Marcello Conte is good-natured and suitably gawky as Rad Miracle, who will gain a sense of confidence by the end, but Myles Massey's Teddy, both endearing and goofily funny, is the more appealing standout. Surrounded by the young cast of unknowns, Susan Sarandon is a sparky female version of Mr. Miyagi, but she gives more than what the screenplay is willing to give her Randi Jammer. Lea Thompson is winning as Rad's not-so-hip, down-to-earth mother, who may not feel fully realized but doesn't come off as a caricature, either. In a walk-on cameo, Amy Sedaris pilfers laughs as Rad's perky Aunt Peggy who makes horny seashell art and finds no fault in showing off her tan lines.

There is always something to be said for a story about a teenage boy following his passion and gaining a backbone in the process, but "Ping Pong Summer" offers little in the way of memorability with a plain red-letter summer story that isn't much more than "The Karate Kid" with table tennis. Nevertheless, this little trifle has a pure-hearted likability and righteous, all-smiles vibes.

Grade: B -

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