June 9, 2014
By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
We’ve seen filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Sergio Leone build upon ideas from others. Asia is a gold mine for stories, like the classic Ronin or samurai flick, to be reshaped and stylized into something original. Wes Anderson, for example, has a constant love affair with the French New Wave. It seems hard to shake influences when they are so impressionable. So why not turn to the milieu, lingo, and style of a whole decade of filmmakers? How about the 1980’s? Could be fun, right?
“Ping Pong Summer” tackles that pseudo-techno era with light-hearted humor, featuring a familiar coming-of-age story that basks in the nuances of the time. The film takes place in 1985 (the same year that “Back to the Future” was released) and tells the story of Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), a 13-year-old who is terrible at dancing, loves hip-hop, and, above all, table tennis. His family is a construct of archetypes: the hollering mother (Lea Thomson – yes, from “Back to the Future”) who finds it hard to relate to her son with growing pains; the state trooper father with a foreign accent (John Hannah, with his natural Scottish brogue); and the Goth sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook), who frowns on most of the world. Throw in Susan Sarandon as the wise mentor with a crazy town lady reputation, and many a secret to hide.
Miracle is the definitive goofball underdog who falls in over his head when he develops a Ping-Pong rivalry with the cartoonish bullies he meets on vacation. They are the kings of an arcade mecca in Ocean City, Maryland, which looks a lot like that family trip you may have taken as a teen. Determined to beat the ringleader, Lyle (Joseph McCoughtry), in a ping-pong match, Miracle finds wisdom in Sarandon’s character. The final match is like a playground fistfight – practically every kid in town shows up to watch the big game, even Stacey Summers (Emmi Shockley), the girl Miracle has developed a crush on during the trip.
Never too serious, the film freely adopts 80’s hijinks and stereotypes. “Ping Pong Summer” builds upon ideas from the competition in “Karate Kid”, “National Lampoon’s” family farce, and a hearty dash of John Hughes angst (yes, there are freeze-frames). The big boom box; Slurpees; Run DMC; dance-offs; that one attractive girl who everyone fawns over, with her pack of followers, and whose soft-drinks may or may not have a little bit of cocaine mixed in. Not sure how relatable the last example is, but in the world of the film, it makes too much sense. The acting seems appropriately dated – with manicured dialogue and a number of one-liners and clichés acting as gags. Viewers must let the film wash over them, or else they’ll get caught up in the blatant and unrealistic aesthetic choices.
The movie works in a way, but the old ideas need to be reinforced by a memorable plot. “Ping Pong Summer” falls on its own predictability and 80’s hodge-podge, hoping to be relatable and nostalgic, too much to cement itself into a fully coherent piece of art. There is a missing ingredient, however: that same bit that made Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Leone’s spaghetti westerns original. It is the ability to morph what has been done into something that has not: pretty on the outside like a filmic collage, full of a whole lot of nutrients and flavor within. Entertaining as it is, “Ping Pong Summer” has a Top Chef exterior and a McDonald’s core.
“Ping Pong Summer” was written and directed by Michael Tully. The film opens theatrically on June 6 at AMC Empire and IFC Center in New York City, as well as video on demand.