SXSW 2014: PING PONG SUMMER Review

by     Posted 164 days ago

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Ping Pong Summer does have a few glaringly weak components, but overall, the uniqueblend of nostalgia and satire gives the experience an oddly absorbing and charming quality.

The film stars Marcello Conte as Rad Miracle, a 13-year-old growing up in Mount Airy, Maryland in 1985.  Every summer his family packs up and heads off to Ocean City, and this one is no different – except for the fact that Rad actually makes a friend (Myles Massey), meets a girl (Emmi Shockley) and buddies up with the town crazy lady, Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon).  The only thing threatening to keep the summer of ’85 from being Rad’s best yet is the local bully, Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtery).  Rad can’t compete with Lyle’s wealth or hot ride, but if he practices enough, he might just have a shot at beating him at ping pong and finally putting him in his place.

The narrative is predictable and unrefined.  From the moment we meet Rad, it’s abundantly clear that he’s you’re standard nerd and, sure enough, that comes with the tendency to get picked on by jocks, befriend the only other local loser and choke when talking to girls.  Writer-director Michael Tully also surrounds his main man with some familiar players, namely the loving, doting and somewhat embarrassing parents (Lea Thompson and John Hannah), an older sister (Helena May Seabrook) going through a moody, goth phase and then your token jock, pretty girl and best friend.  Not a single character in Ping Pong Summer bears a quality you wouldn’t expect, and the same goes for the progression of the narrative, too.

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Ping Pong Summer doesn’t flow particularly well.  Many scenes end abruptly and even more don’t have much of a purpose like a two-minute scene during which the Miracles listen to a Casey Kasem long distance dedication that has no effect on the rest of the story besides being yet another throwback.  There’s also the scene during which the Miracles find the previous tenants overstaying their welcome in their summer rental and an awkward chat between Rad’s sister and uncle (Robert Longstreet) regarding tanning under the moonlight, just to name a few.

This issue is also directly connected to the fact that Ping Pong Summer has very little build.  Only about half of the things Rad experiences over the course of the film actually build character and push him towards his big showdown with Lyle, and the same goes for the large majority of the supporting characters, too.  Rad’s sister makes a big deal of becoming a vegetarian at one point.  Why?  Who knows?  Rad’s crush suffers from a serious addiction, but that doesn’t amount to much.  And what happened to Randi Jammer?  Why is she some recluse harboring a secret ping pong talent?  There’s no harm in throwing in quirks for the sake of a good laugh, but when the large majority of plot points only amount to that, it leaves the narrative without much depth.

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Clearly there are major issues with the film, but, oddly enough, it does work to a degree.  Ping Pong Summer is somewhat like Saved by the Bell meets The FP.  There was a time when I took all the Saved by the Bell hijinks quite seriously, but now the show’s just a hefty dose of goofy, playful, heavy-handed nostalgia that you can still appreciate, and that quality is present here.  Ping Pong Summer is nowhere near as outrageous as The FP, but the two do share a connection in terms of establishing a highly unique, hyper real world that makes it oddly natural to accept bizarre story components; Ping Pong Summer just does so in a far tamer, much more PG-13 manner.

The movie shouldn’t work as well as it does, but all of those elements that one might deem devastatingly weak had they popped up in any other feature film actually come together quite nicely thanks to this bizarrely enjoyable tone.  Conte’s performance is flat from beginning to end, but when that is at the center of a scene during which his crush awkwardly interacts with his family while they’re in the middle of a heated round of miniature golf, you cringe for him far more than you might have had he had a more present, natural reaction to the situation.

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It’s tough to tell whether this unusual combination of components was totally deliberate, but regardless, it’s entertaining and that’s really all that matters.  Rad doesn’t change all that much from beginning to end and his journey absolutely doesn’t leave you with all that much to think about after the film ends, but it will leave you with a smile on your face, and that counts for something.

Grade: B-

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