Ah, summer vacation—when virgins seek deflowerment, keg stands are ubiquitous, and hearts are broken. Crazy spreads like wildfire and curious pubescent teens prowl for life-changing experiences on the sands of coastal burrows. In the 1980s, many films, from Stand by Me to One Crazy Summer, specialized in depictions of young people coming to grips with sexual identity, death, and impending adulthood throughout hot summer months. Movies since have paid tribute to this seasonal nostalgia in more darkly comic ways, but Ping Pong Summer opts for a more sincere approach. A heartfelt retro flashback littered with pop-culture iconography and much slang, it focuses on the importance of friendship and loyalty rather than social standing.
The first time we see Radford “Rad” Miracle (Marcello Conte) he’s volleying a ping-pong ball against a wall. Seconds later, he’s moonwalking seamlessly out of his parents’ garage. But when the perspective switches to that of the next-door neighbor, the reality of the boy’s awkward self is revealed. He can’t dance a lick, but at least he gives it the college try. The film then seeks to move Rad past this delusion so he can relish in his true potential, a task that will take, natch, one pivotal summer vacation to achieve. And it begins with his arrival in Ocean City, an unassuming crab haven on the Maryland coast. There me meets an equally shy ping-pong enthusiast, Teddy (Myles Massey), but also incurs the wrath of two rich kids who bully him at the local video-game arcade. A sporting showdown becomes inevitable, but the real joy of the film is in writer-director Michael Tully deftly articulating Rad’s growing confidence as the big game approaches.
It isn’t a linear ascent, as Rad faces a few pitfalls that necessitate the mentorship of a local kook, Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), with a background in sports psychology. Rad even occasionally goes out on a limb and surprises us with his courage, as in a scene inside a nightclub for teenagers where he decides to try out his rough B-boy skills in front of the whole crowd. The viewer’s been programmed to think Rad will embarrass himself, but he doesn’t (at least not entirely), and onlookers eventually congratulate his efforts. The moment may seem minor, but the smile on the boy’s face speaks volumes about the bourgeoning sense of determination he’ll no doubt channel into other avenues of his life.
In this sense, Ping Pong Summer delights in the life-affirming impact of subtle emotional epiphanies. Most coming-of-age narratives are crammed with narrative incident, and at the expense of insight into their characters’ emotional state of beings. Tully’s film, though, is content to revel in the tender flashpoints that pockmark Rad’s transition into the wilds of adulthood, memorializing the hazy warmth of camaraderie experienced by someone still open enough to appreciate the here and now. Ultimately, it brims with an observational patience that compliments its hero’s guileless demeanor and genuine affection for others.