The German middle class takes another drubbing in novice helmer Matthias Luthardt’s “pingpong,” a chamber piece with four characters full of unspoken needs that rarely bursts with the kind of tension required to make an impact. Well-crafted with a confidently quiet style, pic trods where others have gone before, entering into the hothouse world of the bourgeoisie where communication is non-existent and manipulation is king. Though strong enough for small fest play, “pingpong” is unlikely to be bouncing around multi-territory art cinemas.
Sixteen-year-old Paul (Sebastian Urzendowsky) shows up unannounced in the backyard of his uncle’s nice suburban house one summer day declaring his intention to stay for an unspecified period of time. His father’s recent suicide is only the most immediate of family issues they all avoid talking about, so Uncle Stefan (Falk Rockstroh) and Aunt Anna (Marion Mitterhammer) reluctantly take Paul in without too much prying.
Sensing the necessity of making himself useful, Paul volunteers to fix up the abandoned swimming pool, an act which makes the cool Anna a little more agreeable. Still, she reserves outward affection for the dog — certainly not her son Robert (Clemens Berg), whose emotional needs are essentially ignored.
When Uncle Stefan is called away on business, Paul’s sexual attraction to his aunt grows bolder, a palpable draw Anna only weakly brushes aside.
In order to avoid conversations or tasks, the boys head for the ping-pong table. Unfortunately the climactic scene, where Paul breaks down and tells Robert about his father’s suicide, fails to grip the viewer and doesn’t make the necessary emotional impact.
A genial food fight serves as the watershed moment for Anna to accept Paul, but the scene feels out of character for the uptight woman, more script-useful than real.
Perfs are finely tuned for the most part, though every line is given more breathing room than required: It’s already clear that these people exist in their own individualized vacuums.
For Luthardt and much of his crew, including d.p. Christian Marohl, pic is their graduation piece from the Potsdam Academy, and as such represents a fine achievement. Lensing approximates the stillness within these characters lives, firmly controlled and never flashy; blow-up is crisp and problem-free.