SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Don Simpson | January 26, 2014
Director: Michael Tully
Writer: Michael Tully
Starring: Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Lea Thompson, John Hannah, Susan Sarandon, Robert Longstreet, Amy Sedaris, Judah Friedlander, Emmi Shockley, Maddie Howard, Joseph McCaughtry, Andy Riddle, Oakley Moran, Helena May Seabrook
It seems as though writer-director Michael Tully made Ping Pong Summer specifically for those of us whose families made the annual pilgrimage each summer to the crowded beaches of the Delmarva peninsula in the 1980s. Looking back at his formidable teenage years with a candy-colored filter of nostalgia, Tully presents a portrait of Ocean City, Maryland circa-1985 that is eerily similar to my own recollections. By way of Wyatt Garfield’s classically-tinged 16mm cinematography, Tully musters up 1.21 gigawatts of energy to transport his audience back to 1985 by way of a cherry red IROC-Z. We meet Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), 13-year-old obsessed with breakdancing and ping-pong. Practically perpetually clad in red parachute pants, Rad is begrudgingly packed into his father’s (John Hannah) police cruiser, along with his mother (Lea Thompson) and proto-goth sister (Helena Seabrook). Their destination: Ocean City, Maryland. Little does Rad know, this will be his first summer vacation free from parental supervision, therefore it will serve as a major stepping stone for his coming-of-age.
Gifted with twenty dollars for the week, Rad decides to celebrate his newfound freedom by drinking Slurpees and eating frozen custard. Rad is much too shy to make any friends, but Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey) quickly latches onto him. They both love rap music and are equally mediocre at ping-pong, so they become fast friends. Most importantly, Teddy introduces Rad to the super secret Fun Hub amusement center, where the wicked-cool local teens hang out.
Of course we all know that there is an inherent resentment in vacation communities between locals and tourists, so two local bullies — Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and Dale (Andy Riddle), the richest kids in Ocean City — quickly target Rad as someone worth teasing. Vying for Stacy Summers’ (Emmi Shockley) — the local hottie — attention, Lyle and Rad are scheduled for an ultimate showdown at the Fun Hub ping-pong table.
As Ping Pong Summer borrows faithfully from the oh-so-cheesy, coming-of-age films of the 1980s, Tully reveals an unabashed fondness for the genre’s formulaic conventions and standard touchstones. For example: the underprivileged protagonist falls in love with the trophy girl but must compete (against all odds, of course) with the bourgeois bully to win the girl; all the while, the protagonist’s geeky comedic relief sidekick provides a bunch of laughs. Tully even presents us with an eccentric beer-swilling coach (Susan Sarandon) who teaches Rad how to really play ping-pong, though she is also teaching him about self-confidence and the art of defusing bullies by mentally blocking out their noise, because there has to be a moral to every story. By presenting these conventions and tropes so blatantly, it is as if Tully is asking the audience to reexamine these narrative devices culled from 1980s cinema via our own modern perspective. In retrospect, the plot may seem just as ridiculous as the graphics of vintage arcade games, cassette-deck boom boxes, parachute pants and Pixy Stix; or, the narrative structure may conjure up the very same charmingly nostalgic memories as the 1980s production design. For better or worse, Ping Pong Summer is precisely what my generation believes a coming-of-age story should be.