Melbourne, Melbourne International Film Festival 2014

Ping Pong Summer, MIFF 2014

0 Comments 31 July 2014

Ping Pong Summer, written and directed by Michael Tully, manages to touch upon every beloved aspect of the ’80s: t-shirts with slogans, arcades, mini golf, hip-hop, even the plot of The Karate Kid.

This is not a scathing indictment of the film, not in the slightest. Rather, this is an acknowledgment of Tully’s immense love and nostalgia for a sun-bleached cultural and societal epoch that a good portion of society may not have lived through, but will themselves end up yearning for after riding this Super 16mm time machine.

Our protagonist, 13-year-old Radford ‘Rad’ Miracle (the acting debut of the awkwardly charming Marcello Conte), is the typical fish out of water, ready to spend his summer vacation with his family in Ocean City, Maryland; the embodiment of ’80s washed out Americana, replete with babes, boardwalk, and billboards. There, he is befriended by Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), a charming and hilarious character in his own right, yet an obvious throwback to the token black kid of the ‘racially diverse’ ’80s. With his afro, short-shorts, penchant for freestyle rapping, aloof father, and origins in Detroit, Teddy’s friendship with Rad even evokes such obvious nicknames as Ebony & Ivory and Ivory & Ivory. Aspects of race and racism in the ’80s are addressed by Tully, through the hostility of bullies, in a manner which marks the time without being preachy.

Add to the mix Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), the beautiful babe with the heart of gold, and Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry), the douche bag rich kid who is perfect at everything, and you have yourself a basic never-ending, teen summer, coming-of-age story that takes a back seat to everything else plastered on the wall.

Let’s not forget the titular sport itself, table tennis, or as tha kidz are calling it, ping pong. This ain’t your granddaddy’s ping pong. Rather, the characters treat the sport, and the filmmakers shoot the sequences themselves, like one might approach death racing or Russian roulette. The film, without a doubt, features the most intense high-stakes game of ping pong you could possibly imagine played in front of a crowd full of children, accompanied by the dopest synth beats.

Tully does not seek to reinvent anything already established in this concrete cultural institution. Rather, Ping Pong Summer shows signs of a filmmaker who loves his craft, his era, and the insanity of its flaws. Throughout the film, there lies a subtle undercurrent of irony which occasionally bursts out in shameless intention. This comes in the form of ridiculous freeze-frames, digital zooms, and the soundtrack (oh lord the soundtrack). In addition, Ping Pong Summer showcases gorgeous cinematography shot with a Super 16mm film stock to create an engrossing composition defined by luscious colours and rich grain.

Viewers at first may be put off by the overall stiffness of the acting amongst the young cast, with gawky delivery and awkward chemistry ready to induce a cringe like nobody’s business. However, over time, this simply becomes another badge of honour worn by the film, contributing to its overall tone, resembling a genuine relic of times gone by, featuring cheesy lines and even cheesier expressions.

The cheese isn’t the only relic of the ’80s on display, with Lea Thompson (of Back to the Future legend) cast as Rad Miracle’s mother, an added measure to ensure we drown under that sweet ocean of nostalgia. With a main cast comprised of such young actors, the film’s marketing has relied on older stars to attract audiences. However, it’s best not to be deceived. Susan Sarandon and, to an even greater extent, Amy Sedaris play rather minor parts in the scheme of things, which is not a letdown of any sorts. These characters work to establish a sense of reality in this universe, a counterpart to the absolute insanity of youth. Susan Sarandon, in particular, assumes the Mr Miyagi type role in the film, just with a lot more alcohol and fish.

Ultimately, the film is brought down by its rushed ending. Though some may appreciate its succinct tying of all loose ends, many will remain gobsmacked in their seats, scratching their heads and thinking aloud, “Was that it?” And even if that may be it, it does little to detract from the immensely enjoyable experience that is Ping Pong Summer.

4/5 stars

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