As a nostalgia piece redolent of ’80s-era pop culture, “Ping Pong Summer” works better as an affectionate touchstone than fully realized movie. Written and directed by Michael Tully and filmed on location at Ocean City, Md., this summertime coming-of-age comedy possesses winsome charm and a sense for the artifacts of the age: cassettes, boomboxes, parachute pants and Jheri-curl activator.
But its relatively uninvolving story, starchily directed by Tully and given little zing by an uneven cast, makes “Ping Pong Summer” an okay-not-great addition to a canon that has been elevated most recently by films like “The Way, Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now.”
“Ping Pong Summer” takes place in 1985, when rising ninth-grader Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) takes his annual trip to the beach with his parents and surly proto-goth sister. Rad has two passions in life: Ping-Pong and rap music. When he’s not working on his forehand, he’s perfecting his pop-and-lock within the leafy suburban environs of Mt. Airy, Md.
[Related: “Ping Pong Summer” showcases an Ocean City that hasn’t changed much since 1985]
Once he hits Ocean City, Rad meets a new best friend, an outgoing African American kid from Baltimore named Teddy (Myles Massey), who immediately introduces Rad to a game arcade where they can play Ping-Pong all day long. Soon enough, Rad has run afoul of the town bully — a spoiled, racist rich kid named Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) — and spied a beautiful blonde teenager named Stacy (Emmi Shockley) who keeps mixing a mysterious white powder with her super-sized sodas from the ice cream stand.
It’s a familiar setup, with distressingly stock characters, whom Tully doesn’t invest with much by way of imagination or originality. By the time Susan Sarandon arrives on the scene as a neighborhood eccentric named Randi Jammer, it becomes clear what her plot point will be, making it all the more cliché when it lands.
For all its weaknesses, though, “Ping Pong Summer” exudes an undeniable sweetness: There’s a refreshingly un-slick, handmade modesty to it that suits Rad’s own unprepossessing nature. “Ping Pong Summer” may not be an instant classic, but it knows its time and place. There’s a humble honor in that.
Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains brief mild profanity. 91 minutes. Director Michael Tully will take part in a Q&A after the 7:30 and 10 p.m. screenings on June 6.