Ping Pong Summer: Review – Sundance 2014

Like your favorite Run-DMC single played on a beach boombox, Ping Pong Summer is a jolt of summer fun circa 1985 that will have you laughing and wanting to breakdance as you leave the theater. Director Michael Tully has assembled a tribute to the best teen films of the Eighties that simultaneously covers familiar ground while subverting conventions, creating a carefree world of Nike kicks, arcade games, and boardwalk romance that will charm people who remember the decade vividly and those who only wish they were there.

The story revolves around Rad Miracle, a very white teenager who plays ping pong in his garage, microwaves eggs instead of hard-boiling them, and attempts to moonwalk in his driveway. When Rad, his moody sister, and his doting parents (Lea Thompson and John Hannah) go on summer vacation to Ocean City, Rad quickly befriends the rapping and jheri-curled Teddy Fryy, catches the eye of the “fly” Stacy Summers, and stays away from his mysterious and allegedly evil neighbor Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon). There are only a few problems: Stacy belongs to Lyle Ace, the cruel collared-shirted jerk who kicks Rad out of the Fun Hub table tennis zone after a humiliating loss. Rad must beat Lyle in an epic match that will determine, once and for all, who is the coolest kid of the summer.

In between the ping pong, we get beatboxing sessions, foam parties, and repeated misinterpretations by Rad’s mother about his sexual awareness. There’s a relentless drill of quotable dialogue: “You need a blood transfusion.” “Sorry only counts in church.” “Inseminate him!” Stacy is also addicted to Funky Punch, a dangerous mix of Icee, Pop Rocks, and Pixie Stix that may or may not include cocaine. Rad’s aunt and uncle never stop tanning. Teddy’s dad and his girlfriend keep their door locked while “playing boardgames.” And the Paul Bunyon Smorgasbord buffet line stretches longer than an Olympic swimming pool. When we get to the sports matches, they’re edited with delightful freeze frames, split screens, and the persistent reminder of Rad’s new coach: “Ball making contact!” The film skirts the line between decade kitsch and inappropriate humor and finds the perfect sweet spot of hilarity, where you’d feel as comfortable seeing it with your family as with your new best friend, chuckling the entire time.

As someone who loves the music, style, and fashion of the Eighties and the game of ping pong, I enjoyed almost every second of this film. It feels like you could have gone into the multiplex to see Ping Pong Summer in the theater next to Weird Science and The Karate Kid (yes, I know those were released in separate years; the era between 1980 and 1989 has officially become one big mélange, free to be quoted with glee). You also sense an adoration for the Eighties without cynicism, which is a crucial distinction in this subgenre. Ping Pong Summer is a delightful film, and Michael Tully and his entire cast and crew deserve uproarious applause. I can’t wait for it to bring joy to people in theaters later this year.