The problem with teen trauma movies is that the more honest they are, the less watchable they become for adults. Most of the best-received entries from the ’80s (Sixteen Candles, Secret Admirer) sugarcoated the mopey self-righteousness that can plague real teens with more palatable nostalgia and camp. Pump Up the Volume avoids such cinematic sweeteners, daring to present high schoolers at their most morosely indulgent.
Our antihero (Christian Slater) is a friendless introvert who can communicate to the outside world only through his pirate radio station under the handle Hard Harry. Crowing with self-importance, he grouses, ”Everything’s polluted” and ”Everyone’s sold out.” In doing so, he becomes an instant idol to the other kids — a kind of discomfort blanket, offering his peers a release for their most covert, rotten feelings.
Pump Up the Volume can’t be taken too literally, however. For one thing, Slater — who’s smart, hip, and great-looking — is an unlikely outcast. And the music he plays (from Henry Rollins to Leonard Cohen) is so strongly antipopular that it’s doubtful any group of high school students would listen to it for more than five minutes before demanding Bon Jovi. But if writer-director Allan Moyle idealizes teens, he also gets at something real about them. For kids — especially those experiencing the movie in isolation on video — Pump Up the Volume’s moody outbursts may seem a revelation or, at least, a comfort.