As someone who’s lived my entire life in Baltimore and spent the many summers of my 1980’s youth in Ocean City, Maryland, I kind of feel like it’s my civic duty to spread the word about Ping Pong Summer, a new indie film out this weekend. Filmed entirely on location in Ocean City and set in the year 1985, the film is director Michael Tully’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale of awkward family vacations, nerdy friendships, bullying, puppy love, rejection, and yes, ping pong.
While Ping Pong Summer does have a plot, it’s not exactly original. Think Karate Kid, except replace karate with ping pong. Pretty much everything you need to know about it you can learn by watching the trailer:
The plot, however, is not why I was drawn to this movie. I first heard about it on my morning commute (which is generally terrible and the bane of my existence) when Michael Tully gave a brief interview for local news station W-BAL. By 6:30 PM, my ass was parked in a cushy seat at the AMC in Owings Mills–a good 45 minutes out of my way, but one of the only two theaters showing this very limited release. I invited my older sister, who is probably the most ideal person I could have picked to watch this movie with, having shared many awkward family vacations to Ocean City of our own. If anyone understands the soul-crushing disappointment of having to “stay bayside”, or the sheer mortification of unexpectedly seeing the exposed crotches of close relatives, it’s her.
Though it stars a cast of mostly unknowns, the movie does include a few recognizable faces like Susan Sarandon and Lea Thompson, who get top billing despite not having much screen time. Newcomer Marcello Conte who plays the ridiculously named main character Rad Miracle (just go with it, ok?) seemed a good fit for the kind of shy, awkwardness most nerdy teenage boys seem to exhibit. His interactions with new best friend Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey, another unknown actor) were especially fun to watch, being both innocently funny and oddly uncomfortable. (Sidebar: I nearly shit my pants when the Miami Connection song “Friends Forever” started playing over a montage between these two.)
There was also a healthy dose of bullying and humiliation, provided by a couple of Ocean City native douchebros named Lyle (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick Dale (Andy Riddle), a scene-stealer who provided some pretty memorable quotes (“Inseminate him!”) because he apparently doesn’t understand what certain words mean. Also, what is it about guys with flaming red hair that makes me want to instantly punch them in the face?
Ping Pong Summer is full of the types of cringe-worthy moments you probably experienced growing up, from finding out you’re dressed like a total dork to overhearing your parents have sex. With some of the strangest dialog I’ve ever heard, there’s something almost endearingly “off” about this movie, in the same way that Napoleon Dynamite is “off” and yet completely awesome at the same time. I should have expected as much with Amy Sedaris (Strangers with Candy) in the cast.
The delivery of completely WTF lines by a cast of weirdo characters (“Crush his nads off!”) had me laughing uncontrollably at times, and at others wishing I could press rewind on my top-loading VCR to comprehend what I had just heard. After a couple of these moments, I gave up trying to understand what kind of movie this was and just embraced the delicious absurdity of it all. Breakdancing while playing ping pong? Penis sculptures made from seashells? Yeah, this movie’s got that.
Tully did a great job with what I imagine was a limited budget making me feel as if I were actually back in the 80’s. Clever set dressing and perfect costume choices, like t-shirts that could ONLY have come from local places around Maryland as it existed three decades ago. Did he dig that Hammerjacks t-shirt out of a time capsule or what!? And did I just see a Deloreon??
Much of the movie plays like a living postcard of Ocean City, a love letter that highlights many of the famous landmarks that dot the ten mile-long stretch of Maryland’s only beach. If you’re from around these parts, it’s hard not to watch this movie while excitedly pointing out all the things you’ll recognize, like The Carousel, Old Pro Golf, the Paul Revere Smorgasbord at the infamous Plim Plaza Hotel, and Dumsers Drive-In. I was especially happy to see the Tidal Wave at Trimper’s amusement park, a roller coaster that I’ve ridden more times than I can count. Some places, like the gloriously tacky OC Gallery, still look the same today. At the same time, it also made me a little sad for all those places in Ocean City that have long since disappeared, like Alaska Stand, the Wax Museum, and the old haunted house at the end of the boardwalk.
Though it certainly won’t win any awards, I can totally see Ping Pong Summer becoming a cult classic, especially for Maryland natives. The John Waters force is pretty strong within us, and Tully seems to have followed Waters’ example of making a movie that directly appeals to the local culture, perhaps most exemplary during the scene when a pile of hot steamed crabs spills out ceremoniously over a newspaper-covered picnic table while overly-tanned relatives expose their crotch at the dinner table to explain how to get “full coverage.”
7 out of 10 power stars.