BOSTON — ALLAN MOYLE could have come up with a better title for his new film about a pirate radio station taking over the airwaves in a small Arizona town. While ``Pump Up the Volume'' is about teenagers, funky music, and a sentimental romance, it is also a realistic look at life in the '90s for the under-20 crowd. Teenage films such as ``Footloose'' and ``Pretty in Pink'' tend to portray teens as simple people searching for simple solutions to their problems. ``Pump Up the Volume'' tries, fairly successfully, to show life as a bit more complicated and a lot more painful. The language is graphic and some of the subject matter offensive, but it is a daring portrayal of the ``why bother'' generation.
One of the primary reasons the movie works is its star, Christian Slater. Slater plays Mark Hunter, a shy loner full of pent-up anger towards his parents, school, and the ``white bread land'' where he lives. He talks to no one his own age until 10:00 each night, when he uses a ham radio to take over the airwaves. He becomes Hard Harry, the mysterious, embittered rap king of Arizona who soon has hundreds of kids at Hubert Humphrey High School glued to their radios.
While Slater rails against his own generation, adults, and this ``sleazy country,'' his humor and intelligence save him from being just another whiny kid. So, too, does his ability to move convincingly from cynical Harry to Mark, a kid unable to express himself except by slumping his shoulders and keeping his head down. Slater's portrayal of this shy boy is just as powerful as his subversive monologues.
Equally convincing is Samantha Mathis as Nora, a girl who becomes infatuated with Hard Harry, begins when she writes him anonymous, provocative letters which he reads over the air. She discovers his alter-ego, and becomes his girlfriend. The scenes between Nora and Mark are the most poignant of the movie, an almost ethereal pairing. Mathis is a wonderful mixture of sophistication, innocence and pent-up sexuality. Nora is drawn to Harry for the same reason his other listeners are: he regonizes how hard it is just to survive day to day. much less have plans for the future. He calls the world a fake and says that most people are not really who they appear to be on the outside. His message hits home with kids who are floundering for a way to express themselves and break loose from the confines of being a teenager.
Like Mark and Nora, the other students in the movie prove that stereotypes are not always applicable - such as the punk who is kicked out of school for violating dress code and ends up fighting for his right to an education. and the perfect girl who simply goes through the motions of being perfect. and there's a lonely misfit who ends up taking his own life. All of these characters are refreshingly real. None of the various student characters are simply an adult's perception of a teenager.
Unfortunately, the adults in ``Pump Up the Volume'' can't compare. With the exception of a sympathetic English teacher, the adults are parodies of shallow, self-centered authority figures. This is where the film loses much of its credibility and falls into the stereotypical traps it tries so hard to avoid. Scott Paulin as Mark's father is a former '60s radical who has sold out to the materialism of the 80s and 90s; Annie Ross as school principal is the epitome of a corrupt administrator. As the movie comes to a close, the adults become even more ridiculous, from a slick newscaster named Shep Shepard to an FCC spokesman with typically twisted values.
This movie doesn't end up taking on all the problems it offers up. Meting out justice to an evil school administrator seems to be enough for now. As an enlightened and energetic film - a voice for the '90s - it is enough.