The Soviet film "Scarecrow" is like an after-school special but with grit. The movie was made in 1983, and after sitting on the shelf for three years -- it was opposed by the School Teachers Union -- in 1986 it became the country's biggest commercial hit ever. Directed by Rolan Bykov, it deals with the problems of a class of sixth-graders and its newest addition, a pale-eyed, scrawny blond with bows tied in her pigtails, named Lena (Christina Orbakaite) and nicknamed Scarecrow. The children are planning a trip to Moscow, but one day when their teacher is ill they decide to play hooky. When one of the class members, a dashing young fellow named Dima who has taken a liking to Lena, is caught, he tells on the rest of his friends. As a result, the class is punished and its trip to the capital is canceled.

To protect her boyfriend, Lena takes the blame for tattling on her classmates and is branded a snitch. Consequently, at the encouragement of a tight-faced little despot named Iron Tack -- she's like a fascist Shirley Temple -- Lena is declared a nonperson, taunted and ridiculed. Isolated from all except her old grandfather (Yuri Nikulin), the town laughingstock who passionately combs the village for historical paintings, Lena endures the children's abuse, which culminates in a mock burning at the stake, all the while expecting Dima to come forward with the truth. But by the time he confesses it's too late, and Lena and her grandfather, having donated his collection of ancestral artwork and his home to the village, leave town.

I don't think you have to have had bad experiences as a kid in school to empathize with the lacerating pain and confusion that Lena experiences as the result of her ostracism. And as Lena, Orbakaite has the kind of open, expressive face that grows more interesting as the movie progresses; there are complicated emotions working within this character and she's more than up to the task of conveying them.

The movie itself works nicely on a number of levels: first, as a story about the casual brutality of children, and also as an allegorical tale about the costs of individual action in a closed society. However, Bykov's storytelling style is a liability. You want him to penetrate to the heart of the story and when he doesn't it's frustrating (and, at times, confusing). It's padded out at just the instant when you want directness, when you want the story to peak.

Scarecrow, at the Biograph, is unrated.