Soldier Girls is the brightest, most engaging, and most intelligent American movie on the current scene. Unfortunately, many viewers will probably stay away from it because it's a documentary. If so, they will miss an experience that's as funny and suspenseful as it is informative: a real movie-movie, by any standard.
Like many documentaries, ''Soldier Girls'' is making its way to the public without benefit of the usual Hollywood releasing system, wending from city to city under the aegis of an enterprising New York distributor called First Run Features. Right now it's on screen downstairs from the First Run offices - at the Bleecker Street Cinema in Manhattan - and at other theaters as far apart as California and Washington, D.C. It is also slated to open within the next few days at a Denver movie house and the Baltimore Film Festival. In addition, TV-watchers can see it May 19 on PBS (check local listings), though viewers should be warned that its vocabulary is occasionally harsh.
Directed by the team of Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill, and shot completely at a Georgia Army base, ''Soldier Girls'' follows three young women through the ordeal of basic training in today's military system. All its characters are soldiers - marching, drilling, toting guns, and using the rough language associated with barracks life. Yet the film has more than reportage on its mind. By presenting the tribulations of its characters with sensitivity and compassion, it goes beyond its ostensible subject. It becomes a full-scale study of American life, as mirrored in one of the oldest and largest American institutions.
And that's pretty much what the filmmakers set out to accomplish, according to Miss Churchill, who took time out from tending her new baby to discuss ''Soldier Girls'' in downtown New York the other day. Besides being chief of the documentary department of the National Film School in England, she is an experienced filmmaker who specializes in movies about institutions, because she feels institutions contain clues about the attitudes of contemporary culture as a whole.
In making ''Soldier Girls'' she was not only discovering a corner of American life (the Army base, the barracks, the drill field) that many citizens never get near; she was also exploring the mechanisms and mentalities of today's military machine. Her special interest was in finding out what happens when the system comes up against a real challenge - namely, a gaggle of naive recruits who aren't quite prepared for what they find, and don't think they like it very much.
According to a printed statement supplied by Miss Churchill, the Army has seen ''Soldier Girls'' and considers it an ''extremely distorted account'' of basic training. But the film doesn't purport to give the whole story, as a military ''informational'' film would. Rather, it gives quick glimpses of the training process and life in the barracks, making its point through gestures and words that are as fleeting as they are revealing. It's up to the viewer to assess the meaning of it all. And there is plenty to assess. Some is reasonably straightforward, such as the exhausting marches and drills. Other moments are more complex and ironic: the lecturer talking about ''friendly uses of nuclear weapons,'' the psychological sadism of a discipline session, the sight of fresh-faced recruits cheerfully chanting bloodthirsty slogans as they run through their paces.
Though parts of it are troubling, however, ''Soldier Girls'' is also highly amusing at times, and always full of empathy for the would-be soldiers it focuses on. Already shown at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, it has earned a distinguished reputation. Now it deserves to earn a passel of viewers, as well.