The problem with basing an entire movie on nostalgia is that while it may hit your target audience right in its sweet spot, for everyone else it may seem like little more than an extended version of “Guess you had to be there.” Where one person might get a quiet thrill seeing an 8-track player on screen, another may be more likely to giggle with recognition over a boom box or a portable CD player—the childhood memory can be palpable, but it’s also frustratingly specific. Writer-director Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer gets all its comic mileage out of its affection for mid-’80s detritus—not just the cultural artifacts of the era but also the period’s coming-of-age sports movies—and while that’s a thin thread on which to hang a whole film, there’s enough goodwill and charm here for it to work.
Set in the summer of 1985 in Maryland, Ping Pong Summer is essentially a Karate Kid rewrite done in the world of table tennis. Rad (Marcello Conte) is a breakdance-loving dorky teen who goes with his family to a touristy beach town, in no time acquiring a close buddy (Myles Massey) who shares his fascination with rap music, a pretty love interest (Emmi Shockley), and a cocky nemesis named Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) who like Rad digs ping-pong. In the Mr. Miyagi role, there’s Susan Sarandon’s Randi Jammer, a local enigma who barely talks to anyone and prefers to hide behind her big black shades and air of mystery. With Randi’s help, Rad is going to train to beat Lyle in a ping-pong showdown.
Tully’s story could perhaps work as a five-minute sketch thanks to its emphasis on choice pop-culture references: ICEE drinks, the permed hair, the annoyance of having to rewind a cassette tape to get to the song you want. But while Ping Pong Summer doesn’t try to dig into its nostalgia—this isn’t a film that uses its period setting as a springboard for some broader cultural commentary—it exhibits a modest appeal that’s so casual and innocent that it lowers your guard. And what soon becomes clear is that Tully doesn’t just genuinely love the era he’s documenting; he also loves the people who populate it.
Newcomer Conte portrays Rad with unguarded sweetness. Instead of playing a mocking Ralph Macchio clone, this newcomer operates as if he doesn’t know he’s in an intentionally formulaic ’80s teen drama. Tully seems to have instructed the rest of his cast to follow Conte’s lead: With one exception (an exaggerated henchman of our villain), everyone in Ping Pong Summer walks around in an irony-free zone, particularly Sarandon as the no-nonsense mentor who’s unaware that her advice is almost exactly the same just-be-yourself claptrap every inspirational teen movie has been doling out for decades.
This film resides in an unusual twilight zone between homage and parody, asking us to enjoy the references but not to feel superior to them. It’s a difficult feat, one Tully succeeds in executing. But it also has limitations. As massively likable as it is—as smooth as its familiar getting-ready-for-the-big-competition storyline is—Ping Pong Summer feels like an echo, as if it was shot in 1985 and then forgotten, only now being discovered in someone’s closet. I suspect that’s by design, and it’s a funny, nifty trick. But like some memories, this movie is fondly recalled in the moment but then quickly evaporates. Still, its upbeat pleasantness lingers.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Michael Tully
Writer: Michael Tully
Starring: Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Emmi Shockley, Joseph McCaughtry, Susan Sarandon, John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris, Robert Longstreet
Release Date: Screening in the NEXT section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival