Cult Cinema: Scarecrow (1984) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Mosfilm

Ukrainian born Soviet actor-director-screenwriter and 1990 People’s Artist of the USSR Rolan Bykov has been active on the stage theater and film scene since the 1950s.  Appearing in everything from Andrei Rublev to The Twelve Chairs as well as a frequent comedy and/or children’s film director, Bykov’s work was often characterized as that of a jovial funny man who possessed a unique skill working with child actors.  Bykov was set to be a sort of successor to such Soviet comedy directors as Leonid Gaidai or Vladimir Menshov as well as becoming Russia’s family friendly filmmaker.  His works were upbeat and life affirming representations of Russian youth with a hopeful outlook on the future which sent viewers home generally feeling happy and refreshed.

But in 1983, with an adaptation of novelist Vladimir Zheleznikov’s novel of the same name Scarecrow which was loosely based on schoolyard bullying experienced by the author’s niece and the director’s son, all of that came to a shocking screeching halt.  After years of delighting audiences and in particular younger viewers, it is as though Bykov angrily began turning the tables in his temple of children’s movies, asking that same target audience to stop and think about the gravity their actions might have on the lives of others through action or inaction.  Though ordinarily kidding around, Bykov gets serious here and delivers one of the most scathing, emotionally devastating films about harassment and bullying not directed by Larry Clark or Todd Solondz. 
In a provincial school in Russia, we meet new preteen grade schooler Lena Bessoltsva (Kristina Orbakaite) who is being harassed by a posse of classroom bullies and retreats to her home under the careful love and concern of her devoted yet scruffy neighborhood’s laughing-stock painter grandfather Nikolay (Yuri Nikulin in his final screen role).  Deeply upset by his granddaughter’s state, Nikolay asks her to explain what happened and through a series of flashbacks we come to find out on her first day in class she earned the moniker of Scarecrow after taking a fall on her way to her desk.  Unbeknownst to Lena until time and tide passes on, from day one the class has its cruel daggers out for her.
While eagerly trying to mingle with the classroom clique spearheaded by young girl Shmakova (Anna Tolmacheva) and cozying up to quiet boy Dima (Dmitry Egorov), the class skips school for a trip to the cinema, a detail which is later revealed by Dima to their teacher Magarita (Elena Sanaeva).  After the class is formally deprived of a field trip to Moscow during the autumn holidays, the cult student body led by Shmakova starts calling for a boycott of the culprit including but not limited to ceasing all communication with the person who fessed up. 

But before Dima can work up the courage to admit to it, Lena intervenes claiming she was the one who spilled the beans, prompting a brutal backlash from her classmates who mock her and even physically assault her at every opportunity.  Later still, the kids try breaking into her home with a boar mask and at one point even steal her dress and ritualistically burn it at the stake, somehow or another playing out under the adult populace’s noses.  All of this hostility and violence starts to take a toll not only on Lena but her grandfather as well who, along with Lena, are secretly cooking up a plan for sweet revenge, leading up to a devastating grand revelation neither we nor they see coming for miles.
Ostensibly a socially conscious horror movie about the depths to which undisciplined unaccompanied minors in a school setting can sink in their self-serving cruelty towards perceived threats to their preteen hierarchies and social cliques, Scarecrow despite the director’s history with family filmmaking is intended for adults.  For being predominantly populated by children, between Bykov’s longtime cinematographer Anatoly Mikasei’s Sovscope 35mm widescreen images largely filmed in claustrophobic closeups and female composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s frankly starkly terrifying atonal orchestral score Scarecrow is a most distressing watch to sit through.  Most of the horror is conveyed by Lena’s grandfather played brilliantly against type by The Diamond Arm screen legend Yuri Nikulin.  In other words, his appalled reactions to Lena’s ordeal becomes our horror and soon after our rage.
Let it be said Bykov’s command of his ensemble child acted cast of characters is powerful and stunning, perhaps the Russian filmmaking equivalent of Francois Truffaut or Steven Spielberg.  So good with conveying complex, even young adult, emotions and expressions from the young actors we truly feel thrust into a believable clique of mean kids who thrive on dancing on the backs of others.  Most stunningly of all is Kristina Orbakaite as the poor tormented girl Lena who, for a child actress, is tasked with conveying emotions most adult actresses would be afraid to touch.  With a lot of screaming, crying and heartbreak, her unprovoked pain and suffering comes through raw and clear to her grandfather and therefore us.
Released in 1984, the film came as a shock to Soviet filmgoers who had never seen such evil and antagonism in the Russian schoolchildren before and naturally it was met with controversy.  A hot button topic in the mainstream media, some even contended Bykov’s work should be censored or destroyed outright as it contributed to “dishonoring the Soviet children” while others praised the director for having the courage to put a spotlight on an important subject concerning, frankly, all youths in the world entire.  A couple of years after being released, the film won the USSR State Prize as well as the top prize at the Lyon International Film Festival. 

Seen now after digesting such iconic domestic bullying films such as Bully and Mean Creek, Scarecrow is a startling, shocking heartbreaker that intends to wring you dry of tears by the time it reaches its poetically devastating coda.  Regardless of where you come from or what language you speak, whether its America or Soviet Russia it is hard not to come away from this one with tears streaked down your face.  One of the most powerfully emotional films about the cumulative overarching impact of schoolyard bullying in the world made by a director who specialized in children’s movies who saw how those same children were treating his son and deciding once and for all he had enough!

--Andrew Kotwicki