Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
★★★ / ★★★★
Pledges for Sigma Zeta Chi were about to be tested. Frank (Jon Foster), the fraternity leader, took his pledges for a ride around town and given them a task: to go into various convenience stores, hold the clerk at gunpoint, and steal $19.10. The pledges weren’t aware that the gun they held had no bullet and the clerks were in on the not-so-practical joke. When Frank dropped off Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) to a wrong location, Kevin held a gun to the man in front of the register named Mike (Arlen Escarpeta), who happened to be a high school classmate of Adam (Trevor Morgan), one of the senior of members of the fraternity. When Kevin’s defenses were down, Mike shot him in the shoulder. Directed by Will Canon, “Brotherhood” had a critical eye on groupthink and what certain people were willing to sacrifice in order to feel like they belonged. Despite its thriller aspects, I thought the picture’s dramatic core was defined. The person we were supposed to sympathize with was Adam. I liked the way he started off as unlikable but something inside his mind clicked and tried to make the right decisions, not for the sake of the fraternity’s reputation but for the survival of a person who was bleeding to death. There was a power struggle between Adam and Frank. Frank, in a myriad circumstances, tried to correct a wrong with another wrong. We all know how those work out. He was a scary figure because he had a certain sense of self-entitlement that took precedence over genuinely caring a person. He saw leadership as avoiding punishment and not taking full responsibility for his actions. He had many chances to save Kevin, like calling an ambulance right away or taking him to a hospital, but he chose to keep the situation hidden. It was like watching someone using glue to patch up a dam that was about to break. He grew comfortable in the illusion that someone would “just get better” from a gunshot wound. I thought he was fascinating to watch because he was a leader detached from reality and he didn’t have a clear vision between what was right and what was wrong. I mentioned belongingness. I confess that wanting to be in a fraternity or sorority doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe I was engaged in the film because I wanted to make sense of why so many young people do it. Providing proof that a bond between friends is strong, in my opinion, should come later in a relationship. It shouldn’t be forced. Otherwise, the so-called proof is superficial. Written by Canon and Doug Simon, “Brotherhood” was fast-paced, modern, and it made me think what I would have done given that I was in the same situation as its characters. I think it had a great message, too, especially for the youth. Sometimes it’s okay to accept that it’s not worth it, whatever it may be, and just walk away. It doesn’t mean you’re not brave. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of camaraderie. It just means you’re in control of your life.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene established Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) to be an observer. While she ate lunch inside a classroom because she didn’t have any friends, she noted that everything had order and everyone belonged in a circle. Except for her. Esther had her own way of dealing with loneliness such as befriending a baby duck. At home, we found out she had a twin brother (Christian Byers) and their lives were always under a microscope as their parents (Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra) observed them from behind the lens. “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger,” written and directed by Cathy Randall, was a different coming-of-age story because it was about children who acted out since they received too much attention. Esther meeting Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a girl from a public school, was a catalyst for Esther’s evolution. As a whole, I enjoyed this movie because it had a bona fide sense of humor and the character, despite turning somewhat into a mean girl, was easy to root for because, essentially, she was an ugly duckling. However, this film was its own worst enemy. In its attempt to impress its audiences, it felt the need to deliver too much of everything. It got to the point where the quirkiness became a distraction and it did not lead to any place where the lead character could discover something new about herself. Instead of the superfluous awkwardness, I wanted to know about the dynamic and the fragility of Esther and Sunni’s friendship, Esther in a public school versus Esther in a private school, and the family seeing a shrink in their attempt to mend what they thought was broken about them. I also thought there was something poignant between Esther and Sunni’s mom (Toni Collette). She was the “cool mom” who rode a motorcycle, let them stay up late, used her body as an instrument and laughed at Esther’s jokes–the complete opposite of Esther’s biological mother. I felt sadness in Esther’s eyes as she questioned herself why she wasn’t lucky enough to get Sunni’s mom. Lastly, the ending did not quite work for me because I felt that it was done mainly to shock us. I didn’t think it was necessary at all; it almost felt exploitative. However, I was glad that Esther did not revert to being a loser during the final scenes. Her evolution, with all the good and the bad, remained intact and I appreciated that honesty. In a span of an hour and forty-five minutes, we watched her grow up even just a little bit. Sometimes small steps are worth it.