I was one of many people sitting in the theater who came to see Ping Pong Summer last night by themselves. There may have even been more solo spectators than date night spectators. In any case, the nearly empty theater of subdued conversation was a very different scene than the sold-out screening of Ping Pong Summer at the Maryland Film Festival a few weeks ago.
That was where I first heard of the film. I was volunteering at the festival, taking tickets for the show, but didn’t have the chance to actually see the film. It was a mob scene of jubilant Marylanders, all gushing with excitement over this film that celebrates one of Maryland’s most revered attractions: Ocean City.
Growing up, I would stay in Ocean City every summer for at least a week, sometimes “goin down the ocean” multiple times during my break. I went with my parents and my grandparents, all of whom had been making the same summer pilgrimage for decades. My grandfather was a bellhop at a hotel there as one of his first jobs, and my mother grew up worshiping the sun, sand, and surf of its beaches. The tradition of overpacked cars, anxiety of driving over the Bay Bridge, and excitement of reaching the ocean and seeing the familiar restaurants and mini golf statues as you and your tired family drives along the strip…all of this is very familiar to many generations of people growing up in Maryland.
This is what Ping Pong Summer captures so well. The Miracle family even hails from Mt. Airy, which is practically my hometown. Their journey, their family dramas, their conversations may as well have been lifted from the pages of my own memory. And although the film is set in 1985, the Ocean City that they visit is very much still the Ocean City that exists today. The defining landmarks are mostly all the same, everything still has that sunbleached look, and the billboards and neon signs all still shout the same words. This is actually what I don’t like about Ocean city–that everything is so stale and static. But it is probably these qualities that make it an ideal place to shoot a period piece, because you really wouldn’t need to alter much of anything to make Ocean City look like it did in the 80s.
Any Marylander who ever has vacationed in Ocean City, from the 80s (and probably even earlier) until now, is going to find Ping Pong Summer almost creepily familiar. This is especially true if you were an awkward teenager on that vacation. So, in its ability to give this population of people intense feelings of nostalgia–I give the film an A+.
It is clear that this film, as director Michael Tully puts it, is primarily a “love letter to Ocean City,” perhaps especially the Ocean City that exists in your memory rather than an actual destination. To me, the story and the character development seemed secondary. This is not to say that either were necessarily lacking, but that the subject was more so the place itself than the journey of the characters who move through it. Nevertheless, there were some genuinely funny moments and the main character, Rad Miracle, was realistically dynamic (though others seemed to exist one dimensionally around him).
Bottom line: Would I care about this film if it didn’t produce its nostalgia factor? Probably not. But did the film expertly produce that nostalgia? Definitely yes.
So, whether the theater is full of excited families or solo spectators, I can guarantee that seeing Ping Pong Summer will unite you in your collective memory of goin down the ocean, hon. Maybe that’s why the guy sitting next to me tonight offered me his popcorn…