Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, The (1976)



Main Cast: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen

Director: Nicolas Gessner

I am glad to report that my health is improving and that my bout with monkeypox is well on its way to being over and done with, other than a bit of a nasty rash.  Fortunately, Lesterene brand CoverMark, made with organic apricots, giant kelp extract, and cadmium red pigment, are keeping the worst of it from showing although I have had to break out some of my more high collared and long sleeved fashions for the duration.  I was out shopping for quails’ eggs and Javanese paprika at the market in one of these yesterday evening when I heard a voice behind me suggesting that I looked like a refugee from Best Little Whorehouse on the Prairie.  I turned to give them a piece of my mind (I thought I looked fabulous in puce sateen with sequined accents in chartreuse and peacock blue) but then thought better of it.  Perhaps, with the more puritanical bent the country seems to be taking, there might be an untapped market for more modest clothing in exciting fabrics and patterns.  I’m going to have Leah, head of my consumer products division, contact the Southern Baptist Conference to see how we might synergize with each other moving forward. 

I am a genius!

It also struck me that Miss Mona, in the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas might be an excellent vehicle for a return to the stage.  I immediately sent a telegram to Concord Theatricals inquiring into the rights availability.  My mind then went into overdrive.  How to make this the theatrical event of the year.  It would have to far surpass any previous staging or concepts and I would have to get an absolutely crackerjack creative team working on it right away. 

I can pull Mayhew Blumengroh off of editing my memoirs for a few weeks to do any necessary book revisions, but I will have to find just the right visionary director to pull the project together.  I called CAA and asked them to send over files on possible contenders for such a plum assignment.  I then returned to Condo Maine, shot a few promos for upcoming projects on my streaming network (the CoverMark barely showed – it will be easy to fix the few stray lesions in post), and had an early dinner with a large champagne cocktail.

I then decided to put my feet up for a couple of hours and headed into the home theater for a film.  Amazon Prime was up on the screen (I think the maids have been watching Telenovelas during their biweekly scrubbing down of the seats), so I flipped through films they had available looking for something not too long or complex and happened upon the 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane starring a young Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen. 

I vaguely remembered having seen it decades ago and having found it somewhat intriguing, so I poured another champagne cocktail from my handy pitcher and settled in for a viewing.  The film was Foster’s follow up to her career making performance in Taxi Driver and helped cement her status as an actress to watch, despite being only twelve years old at the time of filming.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is set in a picturesque New England coastal town.  Rynn (Foster) is a precocious child of 13 living in a large rental home with her largely absent poet father.  She is self-sufficient, an intelligent autodidact, and wants to be left alone to grow up in peace.  Enter the Hallet family – son Frank (Sheen) is a creep with severe boundary issues who obviously has a thing for underage girls.  The whole town knows he’s a problem, but he is protected by his mother, Cora (Alexis Smith), the town muscle and money who is also the landlady. 

When Cora and Frank independently start interfering in Rynn’s life, she’s forced to take measures to protect herself and secrets are revealed.  Rynn does make a friend during her ordeals, teenage misfit Mario (Scott Jacoby) who is an amateur magician and who falls for his resourceful new friend.  His uncle, the local police officer (Mort Shuman), is also concerned for Rynn’s welfare and asks questions maybe he shouldn’t.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is interesting thematically.  It’s not really a horror film, even though it’s usually classified as such. It’s much more a psychological thriller/cat and mouse game where the power roles are often reversed.  It’s also a strong statement for the rights of women and children against male power and patriarchy. 

Despite some nice shots of the town and a few outside sequences, the majority of the film takes place in Rynn’s house and plays much more like a stage play than a film.  (The screenwriter, Laird Koenig working from his novel of the same title, had originally wanted to turn it into a stage play but was concerned about an actress of the right age being able to carry the show multiple performances a week.)  Therefore, a movie it became but too much stage thinking remains for it to feel truly cinematic.  It reminds me of another 1970s film of a stage thriller, Sleuth, which has some of the same flaws.

It’s also not a particularly high budget production.  The cinematography is of the 1970s TV movie of the week variety, competent but not in the least bit interesting.  The interiors are lit and constructed to look too much like stage sets.  The music score (supervised by the gentleman who plays the cop) is just plain bad and at times overpowering in the sound mix.   All of this works to The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane’s detriment.

What does work are great-ish performances from Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen.  Their scenes together show the kind of intensity that would ultimately win Foster two Oscars some fifteen years later and it’s kind of hard to believe that she just turned 13 during the filming.  She’s poised, fully in character, and has no difficulty in engaging an adult actor and rising to his level in terms of emotional intensity and honesty. 

Sheen, on the other hand, fully embraces the creepy nature of his villain, finding lots of interesting dimensions and facets in the subtexts.  The three supporting players are all perfectly reasonable in their roles and all have good moments, brought out by director Nicolas Gessner, but none of them has the kind of intense scenes that Foster and Sheen have together.  Miss Smith looks fabulous in her Valentino wardrobe and has a green Bentley to die for.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a film that could not be made today.  The underlying subtext arguing for children to know themselves and to view interfering adults as dangerous would not fly today.  There’s also casual underage drinking, smoking and nudity (although Foster was body doubled by her older sister in this scene who was 21 at the time).  Many of the ideas (and most of the interior decoration) is very definitely of the mid-1970s, a time now nearly fifty years gone.  Approach it as a period piece and as part of the developmental process of a great actress early in her life and career.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction.

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