Film

Jodie Foster's First Great Performance: 'The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane'

Why has this low-budget Canadian-French production flown under the radar?


The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Director: Nicholas Gessner
Cast: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1976
USDVD release date: 2016-05-10

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is one of the great thrillers of the '70s, yet it wasn't always recognized as such. Its earliest listings in Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Steven H. Scheuer's Movies on TV dismissed it as sick trash. As the years passed, their judgments skyrocketed. Maltin settled on calling it complex, unique, engrossing, and one of a kind.

Why did this low-budget Canadian-French co-production take so long to achieve respect? Perhaps critics were confused by an ad campaign that sold it as the latest in the "evil child" trend after The Exorcist and The Omen, but even then, you'd think people should have no trouble seeing the multi-leveled chiller right in front of them. At least the folks at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films did, for they named it Best Horror (against dreadful competition, admittedly) and gave an award to Foster.

Just before she made the controversial Taxi Driver, Foster gave one of her preternaturally self-possessed child performances as 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs, a brilliant introvert who lives with her poet father in a small Maine town (mostly played by Montreal) where everybody knows everybody's business. She avoids questions about her father, which come at her from all directions: from the friendly local cop (Mort Schuman); from her first boyfriend, the shy and gimpy Mario (Scott Jacoby); and in a less friendly manner from the nosy landlady (Alexis Smith) and her creepy son (Martin Sheen).

To say more is unwise, because this low-key film ratchets up suspense by not spilling the beans too soon. Laird Koenig scripted from his own novel, and Nicholas Gessner's direction matches it with quiet intelligence. The outdoors scenes have a bracing chilly air from the sea amid the subtle menace of inquisitive locals, while the warm browns of the indoor scenes are both claustrophobic and protective from that outside world. Gessner, who has worked mostly in France, deserves further research. He made the underseen Someone Behind the Door (1971) with Anthony Perkins and Charles Bronson, a sleek and intriguing amnesia thriller.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane has a nude scene that, to my astonishment, was included when I first watched the film on a local commercial TV broadcast. It was later missing on VHS, making me wonder if I'd imagined it, until being restored on DVD several years ago. As Gessner states in his informative, unpretentious commentary, Foster was being doubled by her older sister as she gets into bed. It seems distracting on one hand (mostly because we're still not used to such things in movies), yet it conveys the character's complete sense of comfort and trust when she's usually wrapped in layers of aloofness and opacity.

This is one of the few films I ever copied onto tape for keeps and watched more than once. When I showed it to a cousin and we approached the ending's exquisite, haunting use of a Chopin concerto, he expressed the opinion about the resourceful Rynn that I'd had in my first viewings: "She's really going to make her way in the world." As I grew older, my opinion reversed, and I now find it a sad and foreboding picture of the world.

It's good to have the film on Blu-ray. Extras are the commentary, the trailer and not very enlightening interviews with Sheen.

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