Allan Moyle’s ‘Pump Up the Volume’ (1990)

24Aug07

Pump Up the Volume posterThough made in 1990, one is tempted to include Pump Up the Volume amongst the Hughesian-like melodramas and gross-out comedies such as Porky’s that targeted a teen-aged audience in the ’80s. However, doing so would be a mistake. This film has characters that defy the stereotypes of most high-school movies and an intelligent, well-written script that seems as applicable to the cultural landscape as it did almost 20 years ago.

Christian Slater delivers what must be his career-defining performance, borrowing not just a little from his fine work in another ’80s classic, Heathers. Though he lowers his head perhaps one too many times in conveying Mark’s timidity, Slater oozes charisma when Mark turns on his short-wave radio and broadcasts as Hard Harry. A bulk of the film consists of Mark just talking, but the combination of Slater’s energy and wit and the thoughtful script keeps the pace up and holds the audience’s attention. Samantha Mathis, in her first major role, also gives a nice performance, which begs the question, what happened to her career? Mathis and Slater have chemistry that practically crackles when they are on screen together.

Mathis’ brief topless scene bothered me when I initially watched the film. I recognize that Nora taking off her shirt was less about sex and more about both she and Mark exposing themselves, making themselves vulnerable to each other. And, granted, Slater was topless too. I’m still not convinced that it was absolutely necessary, especially in a film aimed at a teenage audience, but Moyle directs in a way that does not make the scene about Mathis showing her breasts.

Pump Up the Volume addresses issues like teen pregnancy and suicide with a surprising amount of sensitivity and kindness. Moyle also explores the isolation and homogenization that the suburbs can encourage and, sometimes, inflict. Frankly, this film is one of very few projects that portray teenagers kindly and does not underestimate their intelligence and compassion or belittle the strong emotions that accompany that period in one’s life.

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