It's the summer before his freshman year in high school, and 13-year-old Brad 'Rad' Miracle (Marcello Conte) is headed to the beach with his parents (Lea Thompson and John Hannah) and "too-cool-for-fun" older sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook). On the car radio, Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" is counting down the hits, arriving at John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band's "Tough All Over" just as they reach the salt-scented strip of resort hotels, seafood buffets, ice cream shops and miniature golf. It is a pitch-perfect, sentiment-fueled introduction, enough to make a person want to travel back in time to 1985 or, at the very least, hop in a car and head directly to Ocean City, MD. Warmly written and directed by Michael Tully, "Ping Pong Summer" is an affectionate coming-of-age comedy in the vein of 2009's "Adventureland
" and 2013's "The Way Way Back
," one that feels for every moment like a film shot in the very decade in which it is set.
When Rad and his family reach their home away from home for the next few months, a dumpy rental house they have gotten a good deal on, it doesn't exactly bode well for the weeks to come. His mom and dad are determined to make it a fun trip, though, and Rad finds himself with a little added freedom now that he is old enough to wander around the town on his own. He spars almost immediately with 17-year-old career bully Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry), but also quickly finds a friend at the Fun Hub arcade when he meets Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey). New crush Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley) is a little older and, he fears, might be doing drugs, but she is nice to him and might be interested if only he had the courage to make the next move. When Lyle Ace challenges him to a table tennis competition, Rad seeks the help of neighbor woman Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon), a ping pong champion who could be the key to helping him stand up for himself (and, naturally, beat his opponent's butt).
The newfound freedom and insecure pains of adolescence are captured with a truthful, unforced glow in "Ping Pong Summer." Sunnily lensed by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield on location in the Maryland beach town of Ocean City, the film's locational specificityand authenticitygives the story added relatable shading. The soundtrack, full of era-accurate tunes (among them, "Stick 'Em" by The Fatboys, "Voices Carry" by 'Til Tuesday, "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger, and "Popcorn Love" by New Edition), are exceptionally chosen and additionally add to its convincing blast from the past. The plot, resulting in a "Karate Kid"-like showdown in the third act, is very much in the slice-of-life mode, hugely funny in moments of whip-smart observation about parent-child relations and the unskilled awkwardness of being 13 and interacting with the opposite sex. It is also unexpectedly poignant, a night on the boardwalk and beach with Teddy, Stacy and Stacy's visiting cousin Rhonda (Maddie Howard) beginning with joy and frivolity and ending in words unspoken and lonesome disappointment.
In an irresistible film debut, Marcello Conte (his likeness reminding of a young Emile Hirsch) is everything he needs to be as protagonist Rad Miracle. Conte is sympathetic, disarmingly sincere without being unctuous, and carries the picture from one scene to the next. One would never be able to guess that this is his and young co-stars Myles Massey's, Helena May Seabrook's and a radiantly alluring Emmi Shockley's (as Stacy Summers) first major acting roles. Lea Thompson (2012's "The Trouble with the Truth
") is a genial highlight as Rad's caring mother, both she and John Hannah (2012's "The Words
") excelling in parts that feel lived-in and real rather than parental caricatures. As Rad's uninhibited, specializing-in-horny-seashell-art Aunt Peggy, the eternally scene-stealing Amy Sedaris (2014's "Chef
") pops up for one of her signature cameos and runs off with the biggest laugh in the movie. And Susan Sarandon (2012's "Arbitrage
"), as the Mr. Miyagi of the tale, is a feisty, down-to-earth Randi Jammer, doing far more with her underwritten character than a less-notable actor might have. Let's face it; her "ball making contact" motto is merely Miyagi's "wax on, wax off" adage in disguise.
Cassette tapes, parachute pants and DeLoreans are unmistakable relics of a certain period, but growing up is a universal process of life to which anyone will be able to connect. "Ping Pong Summer" doesn't bring anything groundbreaking to the form and content of its genrealthough this may be the first movie prominently featuring ping pong as a plot pointand the very ending is too abruptly handled, but these elements also more accurately emulate the teen flicks of old. Rad may or may not ever see Teddy, Stacy or Randi Jammer ever again (chances are he won't), but he will forever hold onto the memories from that magical summer back in '85. "Ping Pong Summer" perfectly encapsulates this feeling, born out of the nostalgia of youth and times long past.