Sundance 2014: 'Ping Pong Summer' parties like it's 1985

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Image Credit: Jess Pinkham

The mid-’80s are an easy source of comedy. Boomboxes the size of Samsonites. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Pac Man Fever. White teens trying to moonwalk. All of these sonic and visual punchlines get a workout in writer-director Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer — a fun-but-slight coming-of-age story about an awkward Maryland teenager who becomes, well, not a man exactly, but a slightly more comfortable teenager, on a family vacation during the magical summer of 1985.

If that description sounds familiar, that’s probably because Ping Pong Summer has the misfortune of coming after two similar — and better — indies: 2009’s Adventureland and last year’s The Way Way Back. But Tully’s film gets by on its quirky charm and time-capsule nostalgia. It’s like an indie film riff on VH1’s I Love the ’80s. And after watching it, you may find yourself with an inexplicable urge to rummage through an old Adidas shoebox full of cracked cassettes looking for your copy of “The Fat Boys Are Back” or attempting to beatbox in the shower.

The film chronicles several pivotal pubescent weeks in the life of Radford Miracle (played by newcomer — and young Roger Federer lookalike — Marcello Conte). Radford’s friends call him “Rad”, but since he doesn’t really have any friends to speak of, it’s sort of a moot point. With his glum, goth older sister and his parents (John Hannah and Leah Thompson, another of the film’s nods to the Reagan era), he packs up his beloved red parachute pants and prized ping pong paddle for a summer in a shabby rental in Ocean City. There, he makes quick friends with an eager, Jheri-curled wannabe rapper named Teddy, crushes on a Cabriolet-driving Pop Rocks-addict dream girl, and runs afoul of the local preppy bully, who he will eventually put in his place over an epic game of table tennis at the local video arcade thanks to the tutelage of a wise, mysterious neighbor (Susan Sarandon, reprising her zen sensei schtick from Bull Durham).

If you didn’t live through the ’80s, my guess is that Ping Pong Summer will feel like a ridiculous trip to an alien planet — an alien planet where there’s “no parking on the dance floor”. But if you did (guilty as charged), then the film is guaranteed to make you smile and possibly overlook its corny thinness. It doesn’t hurt that the message of Ping Pong Summer — the importance of appreciating the most awesome moment of your life as its happening — is as timeless as Mr. Mister’s pop anthem “Broken Wings”.

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As a footnote, I’d like to echo my colleague Owen Gleiberman’s take on two of the best films at Sundance this year: Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, about the life and legacy of film critic Roger Ebert, and Damien Chazelle’s electrifying jazzworld drama¬†Whiplash.

Life Itself is an inspiring, heartbreaking portrait of a complex man who has always, unfairly,  been best known for his thumb. James takes the cartoonish curmudgeon in the owlish glasses and humanizes him for better and worse. Mostly better. The film is a testament to passion that drives us, the resilience that sustains us, and the love that makes life something worth fighting to hold onto.

Whiplash is, hands down, the best film I’ve seen so far at this year’s festival. Miles Teller gives one of the most impressive and fully-realized performances I’ve seen in my decade and a half covering Sundance as a gifted jazz drummer who’s put through the wringer by his drill-sergeant conservatory teacher (a feral and ferocious J.K. Simmons). Walking out of last night’s screening, I felt as if my nerve endings were on fire and that I had witnessed something truly original and special. Not only is Whiplash a great Sundance film, it’s a great film period. If it had come out last year, it would have easily been one of my 10 Best.

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