Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen star in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a mostly superb little Canadian thriller that sits uncomfortably between character-based drama and exploitation picture. It was released in 1976, and directed by Nicolas Gessner from Laird Koenig’s novel (which Koenig adapted himself). At the time it sparked some controversy due to few specific pieces of content: notably an apperent moment of horrifying animal cruelty, and a nude scene for Foster’s character (the shot in question was actually performed by her adult sister).
Rynn Jacobs (Foster) is a 13 year-old girl who has just moved to a small Maine town with her poet father – except her father is never seen, always working behind a locked study door or sleeping upstairs. Her unusual behaviour – and the whereabouts of her father – soon invites the curiosity of her landlady Mrs Hallet (Alexis Smith), a local police officer (Mort Shuman), and Frank (Martin Sheen) – both Mrs Hallet’s son and an odious sexual predator.
I was aware heading into the film that Koenig had originally wanted to adapt his novel as a play, and that intention is very obvious from the end result. Aside from a few brief scenes of Rynn headed down the main street, making a withdrawal from a bank, and so on, the overwhelming bulk of the action takes place in the two story house that her father has rented on the outskirts of town. In many films this would make the action feel static and frustrating; here it aids in creating a claustrophobic sense of dread. From the outset Rynn is clearly living on her own. The question of where her parents are and what is actually going on dominates much of the film. For the characters who come probing into her circumstances, Rynn has a smooth answer for everything. She is so eerily prepared and calm as to seem terrifying.
This is almost wholly Jodie Foster’s movie. It winds around her, alone in her house, and takes its time in slowly letting the audience in to her situation and motivations. It is remarkable what a phenomenal actor she was at the beginning of her career, delivering complex and realistic performances at such a young age. She is tackling considerably challenging material here, not only the unwanted attentions of Martin Sheen’s repulsive Frank Hallet but also an underage sexual relationship with Mario (Scott Jacoby), a local teenager and amateur magician. It is the latter element that feels badly off-piste compared to the rest of the film: much more provocative than the story requires, and soured by the notorious nude scene upon which the producers insisted, and which led to Foster essentially disowned the production afterwards. The scene feels not only unnecessary but deeply creepy.
A much more welcome level of creepiness comes from Martin Sheen as Frank. The son of rich and powerful parents, he is known across town as a man for children and teenagers to avoid. The privilege of wealth has given him effective immunity from the law as he knowingly circles and preys upon Rynn. It is a brave performance by Sheen; he has not purposefully been so insidiously loathsome in any other role.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane seems a half-forgotten film these days. It still retains a great amount of power and suspense, however, and surrounds two top-notch performers from a pair of Hollywood’s absolute finest. It is well worth revisiting.