Director: Michael Tully
Cast: Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Susan Sarandon
Watch Ping Pong Summer online in the UK: We Are Colony / iTunes / BFI Player / TalkTalk TV Store / Google Play / Amazon Instant Video
What do ping pong and hip-hop have in common? Radical Miracle (Conte), a white boy who wants to be pretty fly but mostly ends up being… not pretty fly.
Radford, as his birth certificate calls him, spends his days wearing parachute pants and beatboxing, all the while practicing his bad ping pong moves. Of course, by “bad” we mean “good”, which is a source of much confusion for his dad, Brendan (John Hannah) – which, in turn, is a source of much amusement for Rad’s sister, Michelle (Helena Seabrook).
Yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, we’re firmly in the 1980s – and Ping Pong Summer revels in the retro style of it all, from the bleeps of arcade games to the beats of Run-DMC on Rad’s cassette tapes. Tully nails the period vibe, filling his soundtrack with the kind of tunes you expect but also capturing the neon vibe of Maryland’s beach resort of Ocean City, complete with old-school signs, all-you-can-eat crab and lots and lots of hair.
What’s impressive about Michael Tully’s coming-of-age flick, though, is that it manages to do more than charm your nylon trousers off: it manages to make you laugh. A lot.
The Miracle family decide to spend their summer at Ocean City, a childhood paradise for Rad, after he discovers the Fun Hub, a place with all the games a kid could want – including, most importantly of all, table tennis. The Fun Hub is introduced to him by Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), a boy who wanders up to him in the street one day and instantly becomes Rad’s best friend. Their good times, though, are brought to an end by local rich kid Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry). He drives a car. And is going with Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley). And so Radical does the only thing he knows how: challenges Lyle to a ping pong showdown.
A token sidekick? A formulaic villain? A lingering love interest? A sports tournament? Ping Pong Summer trades in archetypes, but the script gets away with it, partly because that’s how nostalgia frames memories of youth, but also because it’s very funny. The giggles take a while to set in, as the film’s believable teen awkwardness overrides any other mood – an obstacle made trickier to climb by John Hannah’s dad having a distracting Irish accent. But like Rad himself, once Ping Pong Summer grows into its shoes, it finds an endearingly sincere voice.
From cocaine-laced Icees to daft dance moves, everything suddenly becomes hilarious. The fact that the cast take it all so seriously makes it funnier; Marcello Conte is wonderfully earnest as Radical, while Massey doesn’t hold back as the eccentric Teddy. By the time Susan Sarandon turns up as a drunk Mr. Miyagi, called Randi Jammer, she just has to lift her pitcher of booze to make you chuckle. You could argue she brings the gravitas of her real life ping pong passion to the table, but it’s her comic timing that serves up the goods, undermining any potential sentiment with a rude one-liner.
And yet it’s McCaughtry and Andy Riddle as his ginger henchman, Dale, who deliver the biggest smashes, staring menacingly over the net like this is the 1986 Olympics. Tully shoots the climactic showdown with real energy, inviting us to get caught up in the sports underdog narrative. But Ping Pong Summer isn’t The Karate Kid – it’s the film equivalent of your VHS copy of The Karate Kid, rewound and re-watched so many times it’s become battered and old. It’s that scratchy quality that gives Ping Pong Summer its uneven, raw appeal; a coming-of-age tale that comes into its own, unusual identity. Maybe ping pong and hip-hop do go together after all.