"A Small Circle of Friends," opening today at area theaters, was evidently conceived as a sober, revealing backward glance at the college generation of the late '60s and early '70s. One can only offer equally sincere regrets to the filmakers for their conspicuous inability to avoid cliches, sustain characterization, recapture a historical period or put experience in an interesting perspective, among other little technicalities.

A fractured chronicle of Life at Harvard in tempestuous times, the film costars Brad Davis, Karen Allen and Jameson Parker as undergrads who arrive on campus in 1967. At the end of four strife-torn years, they have evolved by bewildering zigs and zags of story continuity into a devoted, if preposterous, menagea a trois.

Director Rob Cohen, who entered Harvard in 1967 and graduated in 1971, may be uniquely qualified to authenticate the material written, by Ezra Sacks, who did time at NYU and may be remebered, none too fondly, as the auther of "Fm," a misbegotten attempt at rabble-rousing comedy.

Their joint accomplishment may be regarded as the 1980 mutation of 1970's "Love Story." Both pictures somehow succeed in making the Harvard campus look like a hotbed of inanity.

The tilt to cliche is forecast by the musical score, an overorchestrated, overindulged nag that makes one long for something merely obtrusive in the old Max Steiner tradition. While composer Jim Steinman is busy zinging the sap out of his strings, the story commences with a cute reunion scene to frame the college scenes in flashback. While bicycling in Cambridge, Parker spots Allen in a cab and gives chase, nearly killing himself in the effort to overtake her before being properly introuced to the audience.

Cohen and Sacks must think of this collision-course reunion as punchy. But it implies that the filmmakers are so desperate to grab your atention that they can't even set up a simple meeting without falling all over themselves. I wish they'd take a look at the simple, natural way Claude Sautet sets up the reunion of a divorced couple in "A Simple Story." This strenuous approach to exposition is not only unnecessary, it's kinda stupid.

The alienating touches keep adding up as the shift is made to flashback and the exposition lurches along. Davis, portraying a would-be irrepressible, spontaneous type named Leo DaVinci Rizzo (uh-huh), who aspires to be a great newspaperman, picks up where he left off in "Midnight Express," inspiring one with the profound desire to see him locked up and the key thrown away.

Davis makes his entrance in "A Small Circle" pretending to be blind student so that he can march to the front of the registration lines and demand the courses he wants. That's merely an opening gambit -- he's got an obnoxius million of them. He's a book thief, a burglar, a shameless self-promotor, a slack-mouthed and evidently complacent lech. In short, the all-round, unbelievable sort of creep that immediately betrays a desperate, tasteless desire to fashion a "colorful" youthful lead.

Parker, fundamentally a more attractive young actor, is left to languish on the periphery with the blandest of WASP identities. His arrival at college, accompanied by his solicitous widowed mother, is an early illustration of how Cohen tends to impose an inappropriate tone or permit ludicrous connotations to suggest themselves. The scene with Parker and his mom is directed in a way that makes it indistinguishable form those tug-at-the-heart insurance commericials that remind you of the wisdom of expecting the worst and planning accordingly.

After mooning over Allen, imppobably cast as a coed named Jessica Bloom who is attracted to the absolute worst in progaganda art and feminist psychodrama, Parker gets his chance when Allen and Davis (a dubious match to begin with) break up. Unfortunately, on their way to becoming a threesome, there's nothing definably attractive about any of the characters as written. Allen and Parker simply manage to trade on their good looks and apparent likability as far as they can, while Davis always seems overdue for cancellation.

Karen Allen is perhaps the most beguiling new face in American movies, and I keep telling myself that it's only a matter of time before she and a decent leading role get together. Unfortunately, there's also the possibility that a succession of Jessicas could devalue her charms before they've been respectably exploited. As Holly Golightly said, "There are certain shades of limelight that can ruin a girl's complexion."