There are few films I regret seeing, but Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer sincerely left me kicking myself for lack of better judgement. With the spate of quality cinema on offer at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, choosing one bad film leaves with it the bitter taste of missed opportunity, knowing that you have most definitely missed something better. I do not know what exactly compelled me to see the film, perhaps something I’d seen on Twitter, or a subway advertisement I’d registered subliminally on recent overseas travels. For now I am directing the blame straight at the promotional still of a menacing Susan Sarandon wielding a fish; a bold vision sadly belying the lame, wheezing impotence of Ping Pong Summer.
Set in 1985, the film centres around 13-year-old all-round-dweeb Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte), who’s on summer vacation with his family in Ocean City, Maryland. There he makes BFFLs with possibly even dweebier-still Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey), who shares his love for hip hop and ping pong. They find enemies in the local bullies, town jock Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and snivelling red-headed crony Dale (Andy Riddle). Both Lyle and Rad compete for the affections of sugar-addict babe Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley). Sick of being treated like a loser, Rad challenges Lyle to a Saturday afternoon ping pong showdown, for which he finds an unlikely coach in the form of oddball former ping pong champion Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon, who despite delivering a welcome dose of wry self-awareness could not save the film).
Ping Pong Summer is a product of full-blown, unashamed 80s nostalgia: the boom-box, Nike sneakers and Run DMC cassette tape of the opening shot setting the tone for the in-your-face 80s extravaganza that is to follow. Shot on Super 16-millimetre film, and featuring more dramatic pans and slow-mo than you can poke a vintage pogo stick at, every element of the film’s aesthetic is drenched in rose-tinted 80s devotion. However, the new Napoleon Dynamite this is not, as Ping Pong Summer is sadly just not that funny, the film’s highest level of humour amounting to the mild amusement of seeing a passer-by wearing an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt. It wasn’t just me – apart from a few 80s diehards in the audience who lost it at every mildly 80s reference, most of the film’s gags fell flat on the MIFF audience.
Others have described Ping Pong Summer as a coming-of-age comedy, which is an overly generous description, as the only development in Rad Miracle’s paper-thin character is that he becomes slightly better at playing ping pong. Marcello Conte is miscast in the role of Rad Miracle, his cherubian looks ill-fitting to the role of gawky teen, his one-note performance quickly becomes grating. As a result the film suffers from a lack of a charismatic lead to centre our attention around. Myles Massey is marginally better as best mate Teddy, with painfully stilted dialogue like “I ain’t frontin’ around.” owing more to flaws in the screenplay than his performance.
Nostalgia cannot carry a film on its own. Ping Pong Summer lacks any kind of edge to make things more interesting, its characters largely bland cut-outs and the screenplay lacking much-needed wit and depth. Failing to deliver on its promise as a comedy, it is an aggressively forgettable film, for serious 80s diehards only.