You’ve seen Ping Pong Summer before, loads of times, but Michael Tully’s new 80′s coming-of-age teen comedy still has enough heart and talent to justify revisiting that skin-crawling period of adolescence we’ve all gone through.
Rad Miracle (yes, that’s his name) is a parachute pant-wearing poster child for the mumbling, gawky, uncomfortable, low self-esteem weird kid that’s been portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald, everyone in a John Hughes movie, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, the cast’s of Revenge of the Nerds, Dead Poets Society and Stand By Me, Patrick Fugit, Aubrey Plaza, Lindsay Lohan, Ralph Macchio, Liam James (The Way Way Back), etc. Played by newcomer Marcello Conte, Rad is a 13 year old obsessed with ping pong, hip-hop and creepy dance routines, three things that dominate his life-changing summer vacation to the hole that is Ocean City, Maryland.
He’s dragged to Ocean City by his quirky parents with hearts of gold, played by John Hannah (Spartacus, The Mummy) and Lea Thompson (Back To The Future, Caroline In The City). Lea Thompson’s inclusion is a knowing wink to audiences familiar with the genre that’s repeating itself like a broken record, as she now gets to play the Mom instead of the fly romantic lead. She also kind of does look like her future self in Back To The Future 2, which is kind of unsettling/depressing. Seeing John Hannah in anything but a toga and swearing after SPARTACUS is weird, but he proves to be a wonderful Dad. Throw in a bitchy and goth sister who hates everything in Michelle (Helena May Seabrook), and Ping Pong Summer has the family portrait down.
Once at Ocean City, Rad meets Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey, pitch perfect and awesome), a hip-hop loving wannabe rapper who introduces Rad to Fun Hub, a arcade/mecca of “cool”, that of course has a ping pong table. It also has bullies, namely Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his goon sidekick Dale Lyons (Andy Riddle) who embraces the homosexual undertones inherent in such a one-sided relationship, and couldn’t be more over the top jerky if he tried.
It’s all groan worthy, but dammit if it all doesn’t work, like it’s worked so many times before. The awkward youth coming of age movie is cinema’s very own Ragnarok. It’s like an episode of one of those shows you’ll always put on when you scroll across it on the DVR, even if it’s a repeat.
Rad must beat Lyle at ping pong, while also winning over the girl, Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), alliteratively named so you know she’s hot (or an undercover superhero). Stacy used to date Lyle (obviously), and is never seen without her Funk Punch, a potentially drug-filled ICEE. Dark.
Ping Pong Summer is peppered with a talented and fun cast (and boom boxes), in cameos or supporting roles. Judah Friedlander (30 Rock) shows up as the convenient store clerk that teaches Rad how to properly fill an ICEE (fill it up to the top of the plastic, take a sip, fill it again, DUH). He does so not wearing a sarcastic hat, or any hat at all, a particularly jarring thing to behold. I kind of assumed Friedlander came out of the womb wearing a sardonic black hat. Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy, Raising Hope) and Robert Longstreet show up as the crazy inappropriate Aunt and Uncle’s, because they have to.
Best of all is easily Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise, Bull Durham), who is essentially a female version of Mr. Mertle in Sandlot. She lives next door to Rad’s family and is said to be evil/crazy. Anyone named Randi Jammer can’t possibly be scary. Instead, she turns out to be a former ping pong champion, which obviously comes in handy before the big match. Some of this might be considered spoilers, but the film writes itself, and shouldn’t come as any surprise.
But there’s a reason these movies keep coming out. They’re uncomfortable, almost painful to watch, but they make us look at our childhood differently, or help craft a revisionist history of what could’ve been. We all want to be the fish out of water loser turned winner of sporting events, babe’s hearts and our father’s respect, and Ping Pong Summer is another successful recreation of that immortal wish fulfillment. It’s like a suicide soda of cliches, jam-packed with moments, plot points and indelible 80′s trademarks, but once blended into ICEE form, it can’t help but come out tasty, endearing, entertaining and an uplifting movie-going experience. I was surprised by how often I laughed out loud, or tittered awkwardly throughout, precisely because of all of these things.
Ping Pong Summer is a great comfort movie. It’s a movie you’ve already seen, despite not having seen it.
Directed by: Michael Tully
Starring: Susan Sarandon, John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris
Running Time: 92 minutes