Movie: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

You can learn the weirdest things in movies.  For example, the ending of 1976’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane showed me one should never enter a staring contest against Jodie Foster.  Not only will you lose, but you run the risk of your eyeballs drying out and the shards falling out of the sockets.

This happens in an unbroken take under the end credits and it shows how she has a startling amount of control for being only thirteen years old.  Then again, she had already demonstrated a maturity well beyond her years in films like Taxi Driver and Bugsy Malone, other movies she made that same year!

Foster plays her age as a girl who seems to live in a rented house without any adults.  When people ask to see her father, she always has a cover story—usually that he is working in the study and can’t be disturbed.  She goes around town getting money at the bank from her father’s account and buying groceries.  It’s like she’s a real-world realization of a Peanuts character, fully functioning in a world where parents exist but we never seen them.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, but she, indeed, lives on her own.  While her father was dying, they prepared for her to live on her own until she was of legal age.  Her mother is still alive, to the best either of them knows, and the dying father is worried she will reemerge following his death, but only to claim his estate.

I think this is a fascinating premise.  Foster’s character is whip-smart, but you know it is impossible for anybody to sustain such a ruse for five years. 

A particular problem is her nosy landlady (Alexis Smith).  Given her hatred of outsiders, her sense that something is amiss is like blood to a shark.  The scenes where she verbally spars with Foster are among the best in the film.

What is especially telling is when she asks if her son has dropped in on Foster.  At this point, we have already been introduced to him, as played by Martin Sheen in a deeply creepy performance—intense, jumpy and predatory.  Similar to his mother, he also suspects Foster is living on her own, and he wants to exploit that for his own skeezy goal.

Another key figure in the plot is a teen boy played by Scott Jacoby.  His character will become a love interest for Foster after he helps her cover up an accidental death which occurs in the house.  I guess strong relationships are built on shared experiences.  And, yet, there is some good rapport between them, including a moment that felt ad-libbed.  There’s also a small bit I’m sure was scripted, but felt natural, where she sees him struggling to cut his lamb chop, so she picks up hers and starts eating it with her fingers.

This is the second time I have seen this picture and I came away with a better impression of Jacoby this time.  In that first viewing, I thought he was creepy—nowhere near as disturbing as Sheen, but something still seemed off about him.  Maybe its because, when we first encounter him, he is wearing a cape and top hat, on his way to do a magic show.  Or maybe it’s because he played the title character in Bad Ronald, where he hides in the walls of a house and spies on the girls who live there.

Something that likely didn’t paint him in a favorable light is the movie’s one major misstep, a sex scene between Foster and Jacoby.  While the sex was consensual, the scene is unnecessary.  Compounding the unease surrounding this scene is a body double used for a naked Foster.  So, we now have a disturbing and unnecessary scene where the filmmakers found it necessary to show what is intended to be a naked thirteen year old girl, and it is obvious an adult woman was used as the double (Foster’s real-life older sister!?).  This is the kind of thing a lot of movies from the 70’s need to answer for, and it feels like an extension of the environment in which incidents occurred such as Polanski’s behavior.

Aside from this, which I consider to be a near-fatal flaw, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a fascinating thriller.  Despite being essentially a one-room play, it is tightly plotted and every performance here is intriguing.  I think the highest praise I can give this is that I meant to only skim this movie in order to write this piece and, instead, found myself watching it again in its entirety.

Dir: Nicholas Gessner

Starring Jodie Foster, Scott Jacoby, Martin Sheen

Watched on blu-ray