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Ping Pong Summer
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by Jay Seaver

"Evidence of how much just a little Susan Sarandon can help a movie."
3 stars

"Ping Pong Summer" could probably stand to be cut down to half its length, which is a bit of a problem because it only runs 92 minutes as it is. Maybe the time it spends hanging out with 14-year-old Radford "Rad" Miracle is crucial, and the audience wouldn't appreciate the weird but fairly entertaining last leg of the movie without the first hour getting it settled. I like that theory better than the one where writer/director Michael Tully thinks all of his childhood memories are interesting to the smallest detail.

The bit that opens the movie, for instance, which has Rad (Marcello Conte) trying to hard-boil an egg in the microwave, goes on for a while for not a lot of payoff before Rad and his family head out to spend the summer in Ocean City. It's not very long before Rad, who loves ping-pong and rap music (it's 1985 and stuff like The Fat Boys still seems pretty harmless), finds a new friend in Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey) into the same things. He also meets Staci Summers (Emmi Shockley), a local girl who seems to waver between liking him and Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry), a rich jackass who, to add insult to injury, skunks Rad at the Fun Hub's ping-pong table.

It's a bit horrifying to realize, early on in a movie like this, that its nostalgic filmmakers are targeting you with some fair amount of precision, especially if you've spent any amount of time rolling your eyes at movies trying to make points about growing up from an outdated template. Once that sinks in, there's a further sorry of horror in how Tully is not presenting this time in the way one remembers it, but the way it actually was. And not just in terms of garish, dated clothing, either, but weird obsessions, the basic impossibility of being cool, and the lack of any vocabulary other than "cool" to describe anything. Oh, Tully does occasionally go a bit overboard with grainy freeze-frames and montages, and all the 1980s songs a small music clearance budget can afford, but he is fully aware of just how unformed and not-witty middle-schoolers can be, no matter how often they are written as clever.

There is something amusing in that, especially as Rad and Teddy often seem to be lagging a step or two behind whatever expectations the audience and other characters may have where the whole boy/girl thing is concerned (Teddy is utterly unprepared for Staci's cousin, for instance). It does leave them as often being sort of stuck in-between, too much everykids to really punch through and grab the audience. Marcello Conte makes Rad nice enough, and eventually comes through with both a look inside the guy and some good physical comedy, while Myles Massey is a memorable best friend, but they've got relatively few memorable moments. Emmi Shockley and Helena May Seabrook (as Rad's sister Michelle) fill their roles well, but are sort of around the edges of the story. The same is true of Lea Thompson and John Hannah as the Miracle parents, who like the rest of the cast seem to be making their characters big, odd, and memorable even if they don't have much to do. It's not hard to sympathize with Michelle when she complains about visiting an aunt and uncle played by Amy Sedaris and Robert Longstreet; as much as it's a true-to-life part of this sort of summer vacation, it sure feels like a way to jam extra length and forced quirk into the movie.

And yet, things turn around, and it's hard not to notice that it happens right around the time Susan Sarandon's "neighbor given a wide berth" character stops just being seen for a minute or two from a distance and starts talking to Rad and being part of the story. Sarandon plays the character that everyone else looks at as being eccentric and cranky completely straight, and though her scenes are just as odd as anybody's, she soft-sells the heck out of them. Of course, this is also when the movie actually starts pointing its story toward a climax, and that momentum helps, too. Also a big help: Joseph McCaughtry knows that his job is to make Lyle the sort of teenage prick you want to punch square in the face, and he's just fantastically invested in making the kid mean and rotten while stopping at Lyle being a puffed up and ridiculous villain rather than a future serial killer. Andy Riddle is similarly big, dumb, and hissable as Lyle's sidekick. A climactic ping-pong match needs to be kind of ridiculous, and everyone involved jumps in with both feet.

That last section is entertaining enough as to make up for the time I spent resisting the temptation to check the time beforehand. Again, it may be necessary; Tully's sense of humor is so deadpan and his characterization so casual that it might genuinely take a while to acclimate. In the end, I liked "Ping Pong Summer", but I must admit that I understand anybody who opts to stop streaming it during the first half: It's not for everyone, and it may take a while to see if it's for you.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26083&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/11/14 19:35:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2014 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  06-Jun-2014 (NR)
  DVD: 05-Aug-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  06-Jun-2014




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