Back in the pre-cable days, there were those who watched a movie that seemed to continually pop up on TV. It was a movie that, when viewed at the delicate age of four, eight, or 12, likely struck a cord in young little minds. Even the title, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, summoned feelings the picture inspired—odd wonderment, sexuality, creepiness, and shock.
Now released on DVD, this 1976 cult curio will surely unleash a flurry of memories for the past compulsive viewer. On top of that, you'll witness moments you just knew existed but never saw. Like the F-word and…nudity! And for the newbie, prepare to be introduced to the wonderful weirdness of the 1970's—a time during which movies (teen movies?) about sexually active 13-year-old girls were rated PG.
But that's just pointing out the pulpier aspects to the The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. The picture offers much more than mere exploitation; it's a sad, haunting, sometimes funny portrait of a smart girl/woman living an unusual Pippy Longstocking life of survival and intellectual stimulation. This is a film about an intensely intelligent, maybe even brilliant kid who just happens to reside in a home with a scary secret in the cellar.
Starring a young Jodie Foster (who would also, memorably, play against Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver that same year) as Rynn, the titular "little girl," the movie works, mostly, from Foster's believably strong and bright performance. The actress had and still has that wonderful combination of normalcy and uniqueness that holds a movie in her fixed gaze. With that, you completely buy that 13-year-old Rynn could easily occupy the old house, mostly alone, where her poet father is usually "asleep" or "in his study." Home schooled, and fond of classical music, Rynn arouses suspicion in her New England seaside town. Why is her father always sleeping or working? Why isn't she in school? How come she cashes travelers check at the bank? Why does she carry a purse?
It's not really a secret that something very different is going on—that Rynn's father is not about. Constantly warding off visitors snooping around the abode, you quickly realize this isn't your average funky, '70s, poet father househould. One unwelcome visitor is Frank Hallet (an effectively nasty Martin Sheen) the local pervert who, if not attempting deviancy towards Rynn, is threatening and abusive to the point of killing her pet hamster. He wants to know what's going on—mostly to blackmail the girl into something sick. His mother (Alexis Smith) is Rynn's landlord—an unpleasant shrew whose apparently, powerful enough in the community to keep her creepy son from any criminal charges. During all this, Rynn finds a boyfriend in the similarly alienated Mario (Scott Jacoby), whose cursed with a limp and a fondness for magic. Rynn and Mario bond partially over their mutual marks as town weirdo's.
But like Rynn, he's a sympathetic hero. That's where Little Girl is most interesting. The film could have made Rynn a stock psycho, a girl who should eventually be punished, but instead, it's the hypocritical Hallets who're the villains. Frank is married and has two young kids and he's the picture's most deviant character. You can't fault Rynn's position when he's coming over, stroking her hair, cooing how pretty she is and sticking his hand down her shirt. And, as much as Rynn's situation appears insane, there's logic to it. There's also the underlying theme that some kids are just plain exceptional.
In a fine transfer (no extras except for a few trailers), the film is perfect for TV viewing, mainly because the direction by Nicholas Gessner, though effective at creating an autumnal mood, is undistinguished, even junky at times. Nevertheless, this is Foster's picture all the way, and she marks every scene with an assuredness that's so potent that even a little nude scene (a body double) seems perfectly natural. Chilling and bizarrely positive, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane remains as unforgettable and peculiar as ever.