SOVIET DIRECTOR Rolan Bykov's "Scarecrow" was the Soviet Union's most popular movie in 1986. It's hard to understand why, unless the interest came from its forbidden nature -- the film, made in 1983, was delayed by party bureaucracy. It's plausible to view this as political commentary on collectivism, which presumably is what the official fuss was all about.

A story of power dynamics among high schoolers, the best thing about "Scarecrow" is the situation it suggests. Lena, a new girl in a Russian small town, puts up with ostracism from her classmates to protect a boy she loves. She also does not defend her raggedy art-collector grandfather from her classmates' teasing. In the cruel world of children, reputation and popularity are high stakes indeed.

Bykov has found some remarkable child actors, and he choreographs them well -- as they stumble, trudge and meander about this gray, small town. Many of the faces lend themselves to the camera. Lead actress Christina Orbakaite (nicknamed Scarecrow because of her disheveled grandfather, played by Yury Nikulin) has a seraphic quality. The other actors are uncredited, but the boy who plays Dima, object of Lena's love, is striking, resembling a youthful Warren Beatty. There is also the young lady with flashing blue eyes, who plays a jaded juvenile nicknamed Iron Tack.

But Bykov, who cowrote the script (and, in auteuristic fashion, plays a musical conductor in the film) has compiled a wearisome story that digs too anxiously for meaning and symbolism. And the narrative structure, which crosscuts from the girl telling this story to her grandfather to flashbacks, comes off as outdated and literary. There are other unwanted distractions -- words on the soundtrack while mouths are clamped shut and overdone sound effects, over-enthusiastic dubbing for children's tears and laughter among them.

And when persecution of Lena reaches "Lord of the Flies" melodrama (the children burn Lena in effigy), it seems to sum up the whole movie -- a lot of smoke.

SCARECROW (Unrated) --

At the Biograph.