Mixing one part good-natured mockery to two parts affectionate ’80s nostalgia, with a dash of Pixy Stix powder for good measure, “Ping Pong Summer” is a sweetly amusing ode to the underdog sports movies that proliferated during that widely derided decade. But writer-director Michael Tully largely steers clear of derision in this table-tennis-themed homage to “The Karate Kid,” achieving a winning innocence of spirit in which performances and production design are all perfectly synched to his low-key comic vision. A bit woozy and repetitive over its 91-minute running time, the Gravitas Ventures pickup will be a modest B.O. performer but should mark commercial progress for Tully after his microbudget features “Cocaine Angel” and “Septien.”
Young Emile Hirsch lookalike Marcello Conte plays Rad Miracle (no joke), a socially awkward, dim-but-likable kid who spends most of his time perfecting his Michael Jackson dance moves and playing pingpong in his garage. It’s 1985, and after a fittingly retro credits sequence (producers’ names spinning on vinyl, that sort of thing), we catch up with Rad spending his last summer before high school in sunny Ocean City, Md., along with his cheerfully un-hip parents (Lea Thompson, John Hannah) and sullen goth-girl sister (Helena Seabrook).
Walking around this idyllic world of beaches and boardwalks, Rad winds up at the local arcade, where he promptly stumbles on every coming-of-age cliche in the book. He finds a new best friend in the outgoing Teddy (Myles Massey, rocking a fro, a tank top and no shortage of bling), and falls for the pretty, popular Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley). He also becomes a regular punching bag for bullying rich kid Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry), who decides to humiliate Rad by challenging him to an epic pingpong match.
Will Rad muster up the courage he needs to stand up for himself, beat the bully and kiss the girl? Not without the help of an eccentric mentor — that would be Randi Jammer (a wonderfully game Susan Sarandon), a reclusive neighbor who spends most of the movie’s first half brandishing cleavers and fishhooks before revealing herself as just the person to bring out Rad’s inner champion. Randi’s training-montage refrain of “Ball making contact, ball making contact” may not join “Wax on, wax off” in the ’80s-movie lexicon, but Sarandon brings just the right note of flinty, tough-talking authority to the role, her star presence anchoring an ensemble consisting primarily of newcomers and character thesps.
The plotting in “Ping Pong Summer” is desultory and predictable, the white-trash beach-town humor often draggy and one-note. (A long panning shot of a neverending buffet line seems to add five minutes to the running time alone.) At the same time, those lackadaisical qualities feel entirely appropriate, even germane, to the film’s easy-to-lampoon, easy-to-love milieu. Even when the movie’s energy flags, its charm somehow never does, pulling us into a nostalgic haze that feels no less pleasant for being somewhat lazy and indulgent. By the end, you may wish there had been fewer images of perms and short shorts; then again, you might also experience a sudden craving for an Icee and some Pop Rocks.
Clearly having a ball, Tully and his gifted collaborators (among them production designer Bart Mangrum and costume designer Stephani Lewis) put across their spot-on period re-creation with a disarmingly straight face, in part by filtering everything we see through their protagonist’s wide-eyed naivete. Feature first-timers Conte and Massey make a naturally endearing duo as Rad and Teddy, and Thompson and Hannah are no less winning as Rad’s sensible, salt-of-the-earth parents. The decade-appropriate likes of the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls and New Edition figure prominently on the soundtrack, much of which emanates from the many boomboxes that are carted around throughout.