No mere homage to ’80s films, Michael Tully’s sweetly charming Ping Pong Summer was made as if it were a teen bully movie from the decade that gave us such Reagan-era flicks as The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, My Bodyguard, Revenge of the Nerds, and Three O’Clock High. Shot in Super 16mm by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield to give it an authentic period look, Ping Pong Summer is set in Ocean City, Maryland, in 1985, where the Miracle family spends its annual summer vacation. This year they are staying in a ramshackle house by the bay instead of the ocean to save money, but shy, awkward thirteen-year-old supernerd Radford “Rad” Miracle (Marcello Conte) doesn’t really care; all he wants to do is play table tennis and listen to hip-hop. Rad and fellow geek Teduardo “Teddy” Fryy (Myles Massey) hang out at Fun Hub, where kids play air hockey, arcade games like Pac-Man, and Ping-Pong, which, it turns out, Rad is not very good at, his skills about as adept as Teddy’s lame rapping. But after being bullied once too often by obnoxious rich kid and local Ping-Pong god Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sycophantic right-hand man, Dale Lyons (Andy Riddle), Rad challenges Lyle to a match, which he immediately regrets. But with the help of local weirdo Randi Jammer (real-life Ping-Pong enthusiast Susan Sarandon, cofounder of the SPiN New York Ping-Pong social club), Rad decides it just might be time to finally stand up for himself.
Ping Pong Summer is an engaging, comic look at those clumsy and gawky teen years when nothing seems to go right. Writer-director Tully (Cocaine Angel, Silver Jew, Septien), whose family vacationed for one week a year in Ocean City for many summers when he was growing up in Maryland, gets the period drama just right, from the setting and dialogue to the clothing and soundtrack, which includes Whodini’s “Friends,” New Edition’s “Popcorn Love,” and John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band’s “Tough All Over” in addition to songs by Mr. Mister, the Fat Boys, and the Mary Jane Girls. (The great track over the closing credits, “Young Champion,” is actually a groovy new song by Of Montreal posing as a band called Hammer Throw.) First-timer Conte does a good job as Rad, embodying all the nervous energy that comes with being an adolescent, in this case dealing with a Goth sister (Helena Seabrook), a cheapskate state trooper father (John Hannah), an adoring mother (’80s star and Back to the Future mom Lea Thompson, who seemingly hasn’t aged), and the girl he likes, Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley), who unfortunately is with Lyle. Sarandon clearly has a really good time as the oddball Randi, as do Amy Sedaris, Robert Longstreet, and Judah Friedlander in cameos. Reminiscent of another recent nostalgic trip back to the ’80s, The Way, Way Back, Ping Pong Summer, which won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival, is another small, intimate gem from an adventurous and unpredictable filmmaker.