Simon (Bruce Davison) is a twenty-year-old student at a San Francisco University, but is more interested in rowing on the river with his fellow teammates than getting involved politically with the uprising which is occurring on campus. All he lives for is working those oars back and forth and racing through the water, but when he gets back to his bedsit which he shares with fellow student Charlie (Danny Goldman) he finds him with a girl (Kristina Holland) who after she puts her clothes on tells him he should really get involved with the strike...
Call it coincidence, call it fate, call it simply catching the mood of the times and the trouble brewing in the United States thanks to the Vietnam War, but The Strawberry Statement captured the spirit of the student protests better than many around in 1970. Thanks to it being released very close to the actual massacre of students at Ohio's Kent State University shortly afterwards, it became the film to rally around or disdain depending on whose side you were on, although as the decades passed and director Stuart Hagmann's achingly hip presentation began to date faster than most the film turned into a curio more than a work to get behind and inspire civil unrest.
Still, for all the then-fashionable jump cuts and seemingly endless montages set to the hippy-dippy tunes of the era, or the ones they had the rights to at any rate (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young mostly) you could view this and feel as if you were being immersed in the culture of American student life circa the end of the sixties. Davison, looking very fresh-faced, was our guide through this magical land as the self-confessedly "confused" Simon, based on James Kunen (who also appeared here) who wrote the book about his own experiences as an activist. The book was embellished by screenwriter Israel Horovitz (who also appeared - but as a professor, not as a student) to render it more revolutionary in tone and build to a suitably apocalyptic climax.
Before that, the contradictions of the protestor's life were laid bare, with some demanding their rights at any cost, while others taking a more peaceful route to get what they wanted, though whether any of them did was a moot point as you cannot see much evidence of the Man giving so much as an inch, not even by the ending. Simon bumbles through this problematic series of encounters, except he has the benefit of falling in love with someone as confused as he is, she being Linda, essayed by Kim Darby the year after winning attention opposite that well-known liberal John Wayne in True Grit. Linda is falling for Simon too, but her feelings are conflicted which sums up the "nobody is too clear what the hell is going on" mood of the film.
That tendency towards fuzziness in storytelling was all too deliberate, as if Hagmann was dead set on delivering an accurate rendering of youthful innocence and sense of fair play being confounded by the constraints and demands of the adult world the characters are moving into. To an extent it's pretty well handled, but at too many points everyone tries to get a little too cute with the material, so there's visit to the record shop that wouldn't be too out of place in the campus scenes of The Graduate, or humour is divined from a mass police bust where Simon asks for a female official to deal with Linda, only to be faced with worldweary dismissal by the detective in charge. His uncertainty about where he stands extends to pretending the bloodied lip he received from a jock on the rowing team was doled out by a cop so he can gain kudos in the higher echelons of unrest, but the final scenes where the students beat out "Give Peace a Chance" as their sit-in is beseiged by the National Guard have an uncomfortable authenticity.