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Comedy about things grownups laugh at; A Small Circle of Friends Starring Brad Davis and Karen Allen. Written by Ezra Sacks. Directed by Rob Cohen.

Boston saw some turbulent times between 1967 and 1971: War protests, generation gaps, and the sexual revolution continued apace. Yet most young people managed to survive and even to mature. In the end, some actually learned a thing or two.

Rob Cohen and Ezra Sacks, the director and writer of "A Small Circle of Friends," graduated from college at the beginning of the '70s. They are intimately familiar with the setting, the subject, and the period of their film, and they have made a movie of surprising scope. Using just a handful of major characters, they take a look at nearly all the major issues that would have confronted a Harvard or Radcliffe student during the late 1960s. Though the film takes sidelong glances at even the most controversial and upsetting developments of the period, including drug abuse and sexual experimentation, its final conclusions are bright and optimistic. Ultimately, the movie suggests, kids tend to become grownups after (and despite) all.

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The plot is an update of the classic "Jules and Jim." A wild-eyed student journalist and a pre-med major take turns courting a young artist and finally set up a menage a trois. Along the way, they encounter all manner of other young folk, from a radical terrorist to a sitar-plucking guruphile. They also deal with their hatred of the Vietnam war, their ambivalence toward women's liberation, and similar topical matters. The three-way love affair is blown apart in a literally explosive climax, and the survivors are seen to be responsible members of society at the conclusion.

"A Small Circle of Friends" is a conventional and even a slick movie at heart. Its glossy surface detracts from its credibility when gut issues are dealt with and lend an atmosphere of subtle exploitation (especially where the three-way romance is concerned) that might have been avoided in a more consistently serious film. Director Cohen also indulges in some outrageous cliches as well as vulgarities and allows his visual style to become syrupy at times.

Still, "A Small Circle of Friends" is probably the most intelligent exploration so far of the disruptive Vietnam years, as seen from the perspective of the young people who actually sat before their TV screens (as in the movie) to see whose "draft lottery number" would come up and doom the unlucky recruit to violence in a far-off land. For all its shortcomings -- which are many and serious -- it's an unexpectedly involving drama.


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