A family vacation during the summer of 1985 changes everything for a teenage boy obsessed with ping pong.
Film festivals are notorious for inflating the aura of any particular movie. Sometimes the admiration is deserved, other times, it's truly flummoxing. 'Ping Pong Summer' debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was one of the hot-ticket movies. After its first few screenings tickets for it were hard to come by. Critics were bellowing about its indie charm on Twitter. Unable to see it at the festival, this was my first time watching it. Let's just say, that removing movies from festival hype usually provides a clearer picture.
'Ping Pong Summer' provides an admirable adherence to ultra-low budget filmmaking. There are some recognizable actresses – Susan Sarandon, Lea Thompson, and Amy Sedaris – but, the production budget is by all accounts, miniscule. Set in the '80s, 'Ping Pong Summer' looks like its production design is derived with whatever the set dressers could find at local secondhand stores. Not a complaint at all. The way it embraces its time period is the most enjoyable aspect of the movie. Even though, at times, the movie seems to be calling too much attention to its chosen time period by shoving iconic 80s symbols on screen as much as possible.
What you'll notice about 'Ping Pong Summer's narrative structure is that it's a lot like another Sundance film, 'The Way Way Back.' Only the latter was a much better construction of a coming-of-age story with an awkward teen trying to discover his potential during a family summer vacation.
Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) – yes, that's the kid's name – is an unfortunate 13 year-old soul. He's a pure child of the 80s, except he lacks the coolness to pull any of it off. He loves break dancing, but he's terrible at it. He's big into beat-boxing, but again, he's not very good. He carries a ping pong paddle around everywhere he goes, but it appears he's never played a day in his life. Poor Rad is as socially awkward as they come. Now this social misfit is supposed to live out the summer in Ocean City. A place that is a summer heaven for the cool kids. For the not-so-cool, Ocean City can be a devastating place of broken dreams.
Rad soon meets the town bullies Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and Dale (Dale Lyons) who have some sort of weird homoerotic thing going on with each other, which isn't explained all that well, so when the screenplay jokes about it, it causes more head scratching that laughing. Lyle and Dale drive around Ocean City looking for people to annoy. Rad just happens to be an easy target.
The bullying is so on-the-nose stereotypical movie bullying that it's groan-inducing. It's hard to feel empathy for Rad because the people picking on him are simple cartoon caricatures of real bullies. Of course Lyle happens to be the city's best ping pong player, and of course Rad will have to face him down at some point. It's all so generic.
If you need an '80s fix 'Ping Pong Summer' isn't the answer. It'll simply leaving you wishing you'd watched something better. So, if you're really jonesning for some '80s comedy, turn on ABC's 'The Goldbergs'. At least then you get a few laughs with your nostalgia.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Not much to mention here. There's a standard keepcase, a 25GB Blu-ray, and a Region A indicator. That's about it. This is a bare bones release.
Certainly its 16mm source is the primary reason the video quality here is so soft. It's intentional grain and spotty artifacts are supposed to provide a realism to the movie's bygone era of VHS tapes. It's one of those movies that just doesn't really provide all that much in the way of visual information for a high definition format, much like '28 Days Later'.
Clarity is soggy. Black levels waver. Noise is in constant motion. There are elements of banding visible in darker areas of the film. Color is muted by design, but muted nonetheless. Faces are soft, fine detail isn't really a term that can be used when describing the film's visuals. It's meant to look old and dated, and that goal was met.
So, these reviews are always tricky. Here's a movie that intentionally looks old and beat up. The picture lacks any sort of visual clarity we've come to expect from Blu-ray. With that in mind it's still important to note that the film just doesn't lend itself well to a high-def medium. That's just the way it is.
Now we can be a little harsher on the audio, because it truly has some problems with it. There's an inherent softness to the vocal track that is difficult to rectify. Dialogue is prioritized so low that if volume is left at default levels, you'll never hear what anyone is saying.
The soundtrack is what sounds the best, but even then the rear channels get little workout, if any. Even when Rad is competing in the climactic ping pong battle, the rear channels of the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix are left out in the cold. They might get some audience participation here and there, but most of the time they're stone cold.
The audio here is average at the very best. There's an argument to be made for making the visuals look like they do, but that argument can't extend to the audio. What's to be gained by making it sound old and haggard?
'Ping Pong Summer' is enjoyable in spurts, but downright painful most of the time. I hate bagging on a small, relatively unknown independent like this. There's little to be gained from doing so. I'm just giving my honest opinion. It's got some charm as far as nostalgia goes. That charm, however, is the only thing keeping it from sinking completely. Even accomplished actresses like Sarandon and Thompson look absolutely lost with the parts their given. With underwhelming video and paltry audio, 'Ping Pong Summer' is probably something to skip.