Following roles as a prostitute in Taxi Driver, and a heavily made up gun moll in Bugsy Malone, the prepubescent Jodie Foster seemed doomed to portray trollops on her way to adulthood. But before Jodie played the uber-intelligent mother hen to a bunch of wayward teenage girls in Foxes, (1980), she shed the pre-teen vamp look in a relatively unknown film called The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Foster portrayed Rynn Jacobs, the quick-witted, independent daughter of an English poet. She’s 13 but she talks and acts like an adult, and lives alone in a big house with her hamster. Her father is no where to be found, and she hides this fact from the snooping landlady, Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) and her creepy, pedophile son Frank (Martin Sheen), who has a rep around town for hounding young girls. It turns out Dad committed suicide and made financial plans for Rynn to live alone in a rented house in New England after his death. Based on a novel by Laird Koening, who adapted it for the screen, the film played briefly in theaters in late 1976/early 1977.
Rynn spends her time studying Hebrew, cooking and listening to classical music and has little contact with other humans. In the opening scene, Rynn walks over a bridge one crisp morning. Despite the lovely coastline scenery, there’s a tense melancholy emanating from the screen. Somehow we know from the opening shot no one’s going to live happily ever after.
Mrs. Hallet needs her jelly glasses from the cellar but Rynn won’t let her downstairs. She’s hiding another secret. You guessed it-there’s a dead body down there. It happens to be Rynn’s evil Mum, who paid a visit to in search of her ex-husband and fell victim to Rynn’s ultimate revenge.
But our anti-heroine does have pleasant contact with other residents of the small town. Officer Miglioriti (played by Mort Shuman, who was also the film’s music supervisor) pays friendly visits to check on Rynn. His nephew, amateur magician Mario (Scott Jacoby), befriends Rynn and they become romantically involved. (Yes, they go to bed together.) This shot was the deal-breaker for Foster, who refused to do a brief nude scene. Her older sister Connie served as a body double. The nude scene is one of the reasons Foster reportedly dislikes the film. Funny how another 1970s film, Blue Collar, yanked from DVD release after a few years, also incurred the wrath of one of its' principals, director Paul Schrader. This seems to be a trend with films not currently available on DVD. Hmmm..
Little Girl, initially promoted as a horror film, has no gore and has more of a thriller/murder mystery vibe. The performances drive the film here; Jacoby and Foster make a likable teen couple during their few brief scenes together; the viewer will definitely root for them to stay together and thwart the abhorrent Sheen and his nosy mother. Sheen played a lot of edgy roles quite convincingly in the 1970s (Badlands, Sweet Hostage with Linda Blair), before becoming renowned for Apocalypse Now and his political activism. Frank’s sly manipulation of Rynn turns into downright cruelty by film’s denouement. Clue: by the end of the movie, she doesn’t have a pet hamster anymore. The enterprising Rynn, however, has the last laugh.
The premise of a 13 year old living alone in such toney circumstances seems preposterous even today. Imagine what it seemed like in 1976! But Foster does it so well, we suspend disbelief. Of course, if someone made an updated version of this movie, the protests would have it shelved before the first showing. A 13 year old girl living alone! Where’s child protective services? Or perhaps Rynn would be a masked, young female version of Freddie or Jason, systematically murdering the town’s inhabitants. *Sigh* I miss the unchecked subtlety and creativity of 70s cinema.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane had many different VHS and DVD covers, lobby cards and posters during its release. Check them out here or find used copies for purchase.