The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (1976)
Released in 1976, the same year as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane shares a staggering performance from a young Jodie Foster, with remarkable supporting roles from Martin Sheen, Scott Jacoby, Alexis Smith, and Mort Shuman. A mysterious and unsettling tale of an astute and wily thirteen year old named Rynn Jacobs (Foster) who arouses the suspicions of the prestigious Long Island community that she has recently moved into with her father Lester, a successful and well respected poet.
It is Halloween and Rynn is celebrating her birthday in the cosy living room of her new house. A fire crackles in the background as she plays records (a preference for Chopin is displayed throughout the film), and seems to be comfortable in her own company when a knock at the door startles her. Her landlady’s son is the visitor; a predatory letch named Frank Hallet (Sheen). He is teeming with danger as he surveys the girl’s surroundings, making suggestive and verbal advances upon her. It is at this moment that the first display of Rynn’s exceptional command of discourse and emotional manipulation is displayed, and it becomes clear that this is no average young woman. Asserting verbal command of the situation, she dodges any challenging questions as to the whereabouts of her father. Frank makes his exit, but it is clear that he will return.
Interest is piqued as to why Rynn is seemingly alone in the house; a conundrum which slowly unfolds with literary grace and candour. It should come as no surprise that the origins of the story stem from a novel by Laird Koenig, who has contributed screenplays and adaptations of his own work and others to films such as Inchon (1981), and The Fulfilment of Mary Gray (1989). At one point, Koenig also helmed a stage version of The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, and it is easy to see how well it would have worked theatrically, for the restrained use of location combined with a mere five key characters allows the film to maintain a closeness in which the development of character is every bit as forefront as the narrative. This was a staple of ‘70s cinema; paranoia and tension, the darkness that exists underneath the surface of the American idyll. The quiet seaside community is heralded as a utopia of upstanding prosperity and moral superiority, at least if the Jacobs’ landlady, Cora Hallet (Smith) is to be believed. She shows open disdain for the young girl who does not conform to her standards of politeness, nor does the impudent child offer Cora the respect she feels she deserves. The verbal sparring which takes place between the two is spectacular; fiery and meticulously balanced on both sides.
Cora is goaded by Rynn about her son’s lascivious nature, which is not received well. The landlady begins making demands, requiring access to the cellar, something Rynn is reluctant to allow. The pair argue and Cora leaves, determined to attain one-upmanship on the girl who has, for all intents and purposes, outwitted her by means of verbal dexterity. The dynamic is made even tenser when Frank approaches Rynn on the street. Their interaction is disturbed by the arrival of a local policeman, Officer Miglioriti (Shuman), who drives Rynn home. The two share stories and take a liking to each other. In the meantime, Rynn has also made an unlikely friend in the shape of Mario (Jacoby), a young magician, afflicted with a limp and, therefore, somewhat outcast from the rest of his peers. He also happens to be Miglioriti’s nephew. The familial comfort which Rynn feels when in the presence of the Miglioritis only raises more questions as to the whereabouts of her family, and intrigue grows with every passing moment.
As the film progresses, incendiary situations become accentuated and drastic acts are carried out. The burgeoning relationship between Rynn and Mario is tender and ridden with pathos. The awkwardness and simple joy of young love acting as a parallel to the sickening levels of mistrust and invasion of privacy which threaten to destroy Rynn’s world.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane is a spectacular movie; haunting and moving in the truest sense of the word. Sheen is his despicable best, equalling the levels of nastiness which he displayed in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1973. Jacoby was known at the time for his appearance in the TV movie Bad Ronald (1973) and displays a commendable talent as the damaged and frustrated youngster who finds kinship in Rynn’s equally troubled character. Schuman, who was better known as a songwriter (Viva Las Vegas being one of his best known tracks), balances comedy and sincerity perfectly as a stern, but fatherly cop who has a penchant for the local ladies. He is also an outcast, confiding in Rynn that he has never felt accepted by the community either.
Foster, however, is the jewel in the movie’s crown. Displaying a range and ability which most young actresses could only dream of attaining, she is captivating throughout. She elicits and develops Patty McCormack’s performance from The Bad Seed, two decades previous, creating her own inimitable style of sweetness and menace. This amalgamation of complex emotional displays is simply stunning to watch, for it showcases a level of skill and craftsmanship in terms of acting that emphasises the strength of the talent at that time. This was an experimental time, when directors weren’t afraid to take risks and Nicolas Gessner (who sadly only made a handful of movies), does wonders with Koenig’s screenplay. The score by Christian Gaubert compliments the classical excerpts beautifully, adding an additional layer of complexity to a seemingly simple structure.
The most satisfying and intriguing elements of The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane have been left unexplored, for this is a feature which rewards those who approach it unprepared. The events which unfold and the nature in which they are presented shall forever linger, making this one of those rare films which are never forgotten.
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