During the ‘70s and ‘80s, perhaps no other novelist cornered the literary market on kids in jeopardy the way Laird Koenig did. His slim debut novel The Children are Watching (written with Peter L. Dixon), a fantastic little thriller about a bunch of TV-addicted miscreants, didn’t exactly catch fire with the American readership. It did, however, cement a most unique talent who has a real knack for exploring the inner world of children with daring and sensitivity. Koenig managed to capture this with an exactitude that is rare nowadays. His children are often sagacious incarnates of adults you may know — level-headed thinkers who can keep cool under pressure. Sometimes they are sociopaths. Many times, they are relegated to the margins of society where they are left to fend for themselves among prying, often dangerous, adults.
To date, Koenig’s most recognized and popular work is his second, full-length 1974 novel (perhaps his proper debut, written solely himself), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Its title, taken from the “Baa Baa Black Sheep” nursery rhyme, refers to the innocence of surfaces, the casual reading into the innocuous world of the child. It’s also a sly reference to the self-imposed solitude of lonely people; ones who, for some reason or other, find themselves on the outskirts of an otherwise integrated society.
Such is Rynn, a mysterious and quiet English girl living in a seaside town in America. Rynn comes and goes as she pleases, leaving all those around her unaware of any brewing predicament she’s sure to find herself in. Just 13-years-old, she has made quite a home for herself in the baroquely-furnished New England house she lives in at the edge of town. Prying landlords, police officers and the local pedophile will learn, after much probing, that Rynn’s living arrangements are more than suspect.
Not once has anyone seen Rynn’s parents leave the house, or enter into town, for that matter. The little girl, seen often at the grocery store and the local bank where she cashes her traveller cheques, is nowhere to be found in a school or a playground or anywhere else children would normally be seen. What exactly is her deal, then? Mrs. Hallet, Rynn’s shrewd landlord who rules the town with an iron fist, would sure like to find out. The moment she steps foot into the house, she’s already telling the girl where to place her furniture — and what a deadbeat she believes Rynn’s father is.
Frank, Mrs. Hallet’s son, known as the town pervert, is always creeping around, waiting for the moment he can find himself alone with Rynn. As she often tells Frank — and everyone else — her father, a poet, is in the backroom, translating volumes of poetry and cannot be disturbed. The more people pry, the more nervous Rynn becomes, for whenever the terrible secret she keeps hidden in her cellar is discovered, most people who’ve seen it never live to tell.
Koenig’s novel, a quiet study on the destruction of private psychic spaces within children, explores the transgressions often made in the name of moral certitude. Rynn, the perennial child in a landscape of small town harbours, high school football games and local dime stores, bests her most ardent cynics with a knowledge both worldly and beyond her years. The violence here is mostly internal, a fierce struggle to keep separate a life untouched from imprudent choices made by a ruling majority.
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Most of the action and story takes place inside Rynn’s home. This confined and compartmentalized space serves as a general comment on the seclusion of intuitive forces, which the little girl believes keep her alive. In this strange way, Koenig appears to allegorize early childhood development with the routines of a wild animal; Rynn lives on instinct alone and her abhorrent attitude toward academic institutions, which she believes is responsible for destroying the innate sense of being in a child, manifests in impulses both pure and base. There’s an almost methodical and, therefore, quietly disturbing manner in which she considers both murder and sex. Her casual way of dispatching a nosy neighbour seems rather close in proximity to her displays of vulnerability and affection toward a teenage boy who reluctantly comes to her aid. Rynn is at once predator and victim; she moves with the same amount of equanimity as she does trepidation, planning ruses while dodging traps.
Autumnal, understated and quietly brimming with menace, the novel’s 1976 film version (its script also penned by Koenig) seeks to circumvent much of Rynn’s sociopathic tendencies that are quite obvious in the novel. Jodie Foster’s rather brusque take on adolescent angst channels a far more imposing voice of resolve. At 13, Foster, then just on the cusp of stardom, manages an eerily adult command of space. She doesn’t manoeuvre quietly and tactfully like her literary counterpart; she charges ahead and stares down her enemies. The film’s muted and chilly tone strangely underscores Foster’s performance so that there’s nearly always an electric buzz around her — something co-star Martin Sheen would years later refer to as the actress’ very innate acuity at the time.
Captured in the rustic greens, browns and yellows of a sleepy coastal town (here Montreal is a stand-in for a New England town), the story spins in place, never intending to move from its claustrophobic pivot. Much like the novel, the film means to gather heat and tension in the cloistered space of the secluded house, both a paternal refuge and the point of conflict for a confused and determined young teenager.
Because this is film, we are removed from a literary subjectivity and Rynn’s life is examined here objectively; anxieties, intimacies and reflection are reduced considerably and we watch a strange series of comings and goings, with the house being a revolving gateway of various personalities. Sheen’s pedophile becomes somewhat diminished by Foster’s indomitable young girl; Mario (Scott Jacoby), Rynn’s newfound object of affection, is a morally flexible wedge driven between these two warring parties of the story.
There isn’t much filmmaker Nicholas Gessner can do here with a story so minimal that it depends mainly on characterization and conjecture. It’s down to performance, and the chief participants manage, at the very least, an interesting dynamic which nearly matches the intensity of the one in the novel. The film is quiet, but quietly affecting. It’s also very much of its time. During the ‘70s, a spate of children from hell / children in jeopardy-themed films were on the rise (The Omen, The Other, Carrie, etc.) and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane fits demurely in that niche as its most modest candidate.
Foster purportedly hated the film. Known to be rather elusive about her feelings toward her film projects, the actress allegedly wasn’t too impressed with some of the handling of the subject matter, particularly with the film’s subtle, though uncomfortable, exploration of adolescent sexuality. Despite Foster’s insistence, even 40 years later, to keep mum about her involvement with The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, it remains charged with her fey, unsettling energy. It’s a performance that informs a rather jaded, modern day generation of the horrific luxuries of being a child left to your own devices.