Nothing beats an underdog. From the humble dojos of The Karate Kid to the classic poor-man drama of Rocky, the long-shot sports movie has since become a genre in itself, showcasing the pride and joy that comes with watching the little guy triumph. But in a genre that’s already covered almost every pastime, from boxing to hockey, what’s left to master? Indie filmmaker Michael Tully answers the call, skipping his audience happily back to the distant realms of the mid-1980s, and the wit and wonder of the humble game of table tennis.
As seen in its really rather telling title, Ping Pong Summer chronicles the rise of young teen Rad, very much the definitive awkward adolescent, whose love of hip-hop and ping-pong are tarnished one summer by the arrival of a pair of well-connected bullies. Held back by his parents and his duties to their family vacation, Rad suddenly finds himself in danger of losing the one thing he loves most, and with local hottie Stacy’s affections also up for grabs, it’s soon very clear that he has to stand up for what he believes in. Together with his new best friend Teddy, Rad devotes his summer to mastering the sport, beating the bullies and getting the girl, in classic ‘80s style.
With so many sports-dramas championing this underdog status time and time again, forcing the exact same formula into place on every swing, it comes as no surprise that the resulting movies can often appear rather redundant to contemporary audiences. Luckily for Ping Pong Summer, director Michael Tully’s love for the genre is so exceptional that it surpasses the realms of simply just reproducing the tired old underdog recipe, and instead works to celebrate it. Tully ties all of the obvious tropes together with a classic coming-of-age summer movie, nothing new of course, but the two sub-genres walk together hand-in-hand, giving him far more time to focus on presentation. This question of unoriginality is solved really quite simply, by embracing the cliches whole-heartedly, and twisting them into the most entertaining narrative possible.
Boasting a cast of young start-up actors that’s also peppered with the likes of ‘80s heroes Lea Thompson and Susan Sarandon, Tully strikes a terrific balance between the discipline of homage and the immaturity of youth. Fresh-faced Marcello Conte is by all means the perfect protagonist, a shy, weedy teen packing just enough punch to make him likeable, whilst seasoned veterans like Sarandon help to flesh out the emotional beats with ease. The only player that doesn’t quite match is an oddly cast John Hannah, sporting a bizarre over-toned Irish accent, although as the film presses on, his supporting role dwindles into the back-drop and never proves to be a major upset.
Very much a love-letter to both the sports dramas and coming-of-age comedies of the 1980s, Tully’s Ping Pong Summer stands as a joyous slice of summer fun, delivered with a total admiration for the genre. Sporting a jolly tone and a winning soundtrack crammed tight with nostalgic delights, underdogs don’t get much better than this.
Ping Pong Summer is directed by Michael Tully.