Hollywood superstar Jodie Foster had a remarkable 1976, with five movies hitting the theaters. They showcased her talent and poise — both startling for an actress who has just become a teenager — and also the tendency of 1970s cinema to lionize teenage liberation while at the same time exploiting it through sexualization. Foster’s Oscar-nominated turn as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver is the best known example, and the same themes are present in an effective low-budget shocker that was released the same year: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
Appropriate to its mood, the movie opens with its central character, Rynn Jacobs (Foster) walking on a deserted beach. As the film progresses, we learn that Rynn’s independence and isolation are in some mysterious way connected to her poet father, who purchased them a house together in a small town but has never been seen by the locals. Rynn manages the finances, cooks her own food, sets her own schedule and makes her own way in the world.
What could possibly impinge on her freedom? Horrible adults of course. Most particularly the vile local family of influence, led by a frosty, bigoted WASP named Mrs. Hallet who has the town and her pedophile son Frank under her thumb (Alexis Smith and Martin Sheen, both credibly menacing). The only kindness available to Rynn comes from the Italian immigrants that the Hallets despise, specifically a creative, polio-stricken, local lad who falls in love with her (Scott Jacoby) and a friendly police officer who tries to shield her from harm (well-played by famous songwriter Mort Shuman!).
This movie works well on two levels. First, it’s a character study exploring the tension between children’s desire to be independent and adults’ desire to control and/or protect them. Foster’s emerging greatness is a major asset here, particularly as she holds her own in her scenes with seasoned adult actors. Second, this is a suspenseful tale in the mystery/horror vein, both because of Sheen’s unnerving performance and the enticing nature of the film’s central riddle: Where is Rynn’s father, and for that matter her mother? The resolution to Laird Koenig’s macabre story is easy to guess wrong, which only makes the film more engrossing.
The small budget of this Canadian film shows, both in the limited number of sets (which makes one think incorrectly that it is an adaptation of a play rather than a novel), the by-the-numbers production and camerawork, and the cheap wig on Foster’s head. But that doesn’t stop the Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane from holding viewers’ interest and the edge of their seat as well.
p.s. There was some controversy about young Foster allegedly appearing nude in this movie, and that brief scene was cut by censors in some countries. However, as in her character’s sexual scenes in Taxi Driver, Foster’s older sister body doubled her for the shot.