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‘Pump Up the Volume’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 22, 1990

An angst-powered teen anthem, "Pump Up the Volume" revels ecstatically in the woes of growing up alienated, frustrated and sexually obsessed. There's nothing new about that, of course, except for the progeny who are freaking out -- "the Why-Bother Generation of the Totally Exhausted Decade." Aimed unerringly at its audience, this heartfelt drama is as nasty as it wants to be, and as melodramatically overwrought. But then that comes with the turf, that juicy land of save-the-world dreams, glandular insatiability and lots of rock-and-roll.

Christian Slater, the Brando du jour, brings plenty of cynicism, swagger and smarts to his starring role. In this teen tour de force, he almost has a one-man show. Slater, the sly delinquent of "Heathers," is now the brazen Hard Harry, a k a Mark Hunter, a shy New Yorker who has recently moved with his sellout parents to Paradise Valley, Ariz.

By day he is a mild-mannered, miserable student at Hubert Humphrey High, afraid to speak to girls, friendless, embarrassed by his sensitivity and writing skills. By night he turns megahertz hacker, breaking into the airwaves via a homemade ham radio console. He pours out his soul and plays his favorite tunes ("Wave of Mutilation," "Titanium Expose'"), unaware that his nightly broadcasts are turning him into a cult hero.

Hard Harry's witty improvisations, his masturbatory interludes, his obscene call to arms win a devoted and ever-growing audience of the "misunderstood." Engulfed by loneliness himself, he offers his peers understanding and unorthodox advice on everything from gay gang rape to teenage suicide. But mostly he urges the "Why Bother Generation" to get involved. Like Peter Finch in "Network," he is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

"It" turns out to be an unethical principal who expels students with low test scores from Hubert Humphrey High. The old battle-ax (Annie Ross) weeds out the undesirables -- a pregnant girl, a punk rebel, a Hispanic -- to maximize the school's academic rating. Upon learning of the policy, a supportive English teacher (Ellen Greene) helps the kids expose the ruthless official. At this juncture, the movie, a "Talk Radio" for teenagers, starts to feel more like TV's "The Wonder Years" -- contrived to conclude in a peachy, preachy sentimental teen aphorism.

The picture's assorted subplots involve Hard Harry's listeners, the most avid of whom is Nora DeNiro, a poet manque' modeled on songwriter Patti Smith. Nora, played compellingly by Samantha Mathis, falls in love with Hard Harry's delivery. Certain that Harry is an HHH student, Nora relentlessly pursues him, and inevitably they fall in love -- just a couple of rebels with a common cause.

This adventure in tract-home malaise was written and directed by Allan Moyle, that rarity of rarities -- a passionate Canadian filmmaker. The screenplay, which he based on autobiographical experiences, echoes with still-painful memories. He remembers that coming of age hurts, so much sometimes that a kid gives up, writes a note, takes his life.

Unlike "Heathers," a satiric treatment of teen suicide, "Pump Up the Volume" is passionately caring. It's a howl from the heart, a relentlessly involving movie that gives a kid every reason to believe that he or she can come of age. It appreciates the pimples and pitfalls of this frightening passage, the transit commonly known as adolescence.

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