Below the surface of this marketing headache lies a mildly effective coming-of-age saga that could speak to today’s girls, and to Boomer survivors of the period depicted. Pic tells the tale of an all-female boarding school that revolts when forced to go co-ed in the early ’60s, but the impenetrable title and uneven tone seem to make it hard for “Strike!,” now in wide release in Canada but only in Seattle stateside, to find an appreciative audience. A happier graduation to vid is assured.
First off, that title: No, this isn’t a remake of Eisenstein’s 1924 Soviet propaganda piece of the same name. The producers (Nora Ephron and Alliance topper Robert Lantos, among them) nixed the original title, “The Hairy Bird” — early-’60s parlance for something that sucks — and came up with the worst labor-relations handle since “F.I.S.T.” That’s too bad, because the film has some subversive pleasures of its own.
Most of these come from watching a batch of extra-talented up-and-comers as the troubled denizens of an East Coast boarding school, circa 1963. Gaby Hoffman is Ondine, aka Odie — and, inevitably, Odious — who gets shipped to Miss Godard’s School for Girls when caught trysting with her randy boyfriend. Once there, she reluctantly falls in with trouble-making Verena (Kirsten Dunst), brainy Momo (Merritt Wever), boy-mad Tinka (Monica Keena) and food-obsessed Tweety (Heather Matarazzo). There’s also the brown-nosing hall monitor Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook), blue-stockinged headmistress Miss McVane (Lynn Redgrave) and a smarmy male teacher (Robert Bockstael).
Despite herself, Odie starts enjoying this largely monosexual environment, with its emphasis on academic achievement (not that we actually see anyone doing homework). But before you can say “Maedchen in Uniform,” the financially strapped school is threatened with annexation by a more powerful boys’ academy. The mixed reaction this gets from the girls is the crux of the movie, which is kind of a “Madeline” with hormones.
Unfortunately, helmer-scripter Sarah Kernochan’s urge to entertain is often at odds with her somewhat autobiographical message-making. Most grating is a subplot involving some rowdy townies who call themselves Flat Critters (their leader is played, over-enthusiastically, by Vincent Kartheiser), and the helmer tends to resort to slapstick just when the character stuff gets interesting, thereby botching some poignant moments.
(Kernochan hasn’t directed a feature since 1972’s Oscar-winning docu “Marjoe, ” which she co-helmed, although she has written quite a few since then — not that you can draw an authorial line through “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Impromptu” and “Sommersby.”)
Still, Kernochan manages to get in plenty of good digs, as when the first busload of boys arrives, led by their white-haired, black-suited overseers, and Miss McVane whispers, “Here comes the master race.” Confrontation between the sexes leads to an amusing series of disasters, which is softened by a weak follow-up leading to a five-minute sit-in, thereby sort-of justifying that title.
Amidst nostalgic cliches — the usual uptight parents, requisite bonding over cigarettes and expected ’60s tunes — “Strike!” airs numerous female concerns that are rarely viewed onscreen. Odie’s long-awaited sexual encounter with her back-home boyfriend is especially frank and funny, and the girls’ anxiety about their co-ed future — one in which it’s more crucial “to get cute than to get smart” — certainly rings true.
The most striking thing here, finally, is the suggestion that little has changed, pillbox hats aside, since 1963. Pic wins extra points by sparing us JFK’s assassination and other period touchstones.
Tech credits are smooth, with Toronto area subbing nicely for upstate New York. Costumes are top-notch, but editing could have been a little zippier.