Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster at age 14) lives a solitary but self-improving existence in a big house at the outskirts of the small East coast town that her poet father recently moved them to. She does everything for them, from cooking to shopping to paying for day-to-day living with travellers’ cheques and joint accounts, and spends her considerable free time (she doesn’t go to school) learning Hebrew and generally being precocious and genuinely smarter than everyone else.
So self-sufficient is she and so absent is her bohemian father all the time, you might even think – in an absurd moment – that something might have happened to him, and that Rynn has arranged a pretence to allow herself to live all alone in the house, undisturbed by the authorities or the outsiders she distrusts. But that’s crazy; she’s only thirteen…
Her semi-idyllic lifestyle is threatened when local paedophile Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen) – the wayward son of the repulsive woman who originally leased the house to the Jacobs – begins to take an interest in the solitary young girl one Halloween. Frank’s a real nasty piece of work – handsome, but evil. With the tenacity of a hound and the curiosity of a fox, he looks for any way to gain advantage of his ‘opportunity’. When he suspects not only that Rynn is living alone but that she has murdered his busybody of a mother for finding out the truth about the unusual domestic situation at the house, he knows his moment has come to take over the situation. And take whatever he wants to take…
Jodie Foster’s star was on the ascendant when she made Little Girl, and had already received her first Academy Award nomination for her role as a street prostitute in Taxi Driver, as well as acclaim for Bugsy Malone and Freaky Friday. There possibly wasn’t any other actress in the US at that period who could have handled roles of this intensity, and she is quite superb in this unjustly under regarded fairy story.
And a dark fairy story is what it is: set almost in the woods in the bleak mid-winter, far from Christmas and Spring, this is effectively a ballet between a resourceful young princess and a big bad wolf. Rynn’s plan to pass the remaining three years of the lease alone in the house is fairly absurd, for all her capacity to arm herself (from the local library) with the necessary knowledge to foil her enemies, and to forge signatures and make excuses for her absent father. The sudden intrusion of a love-interest in the form of a local crippled boy (Scott Jacoby) – who sublimates his lost athletic pastimes by performing magic shows – only demonstrates further that this is a semi-urban fairytale.
Though based on a novel, Little Girl has a highly theatrical set-up which finds nearly all the plot development taking place in the living room of Rynn’s house, which restriction adds considerably to the claustrophobia of the piece.
Sheen is quite terrifying as the rapacious predator living under the protection of his disgusted but desperate mother, and wasn’t to be quite this scary again until playing sleazy prez-to-be and bringer-of-the-apocalypse Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone seven years later. Jacoby is also very effective as the gawky but resourceful magician, and the very small supporting cast leaves nothing to be desired.
Less welcome are the funkier aspects of the mid-seventies soundtrack, but these are interspersed with effective small-orchestra work and overlaid with generous use of Chopin, a favourite of Rynn’s and another bizarre touch that emphasises the discord between her age, her outlook and her prospects.
Little Girl was a co-production between the US, Canada and France, and the liberal French influence is certainly apparent in the easy treatment of sexual themes; it should be noted that Foster’s brief nude scene was body-doubled by her sister Connie, who was 21 at the time, and had already stood in for her sister in the harsher dialogue scenes of Taxi Driver. Nonetheless there’s some uncomfortable material here which is rendered more so by the obvious fact that Foster seems to have had a growth-spurt between location and studio filming, and really does look like a child in the exterior scenes.
That said, these aspects are only really uncomfortable in the way that you dread watching TV with your grannie when a nude scene comes on the box unexpectedly; in the context of European cinema, there’s really nothing objectionable here, but it’s a surprise in a stateside production.
An effective and tightly-bound psychological chiller with a sense of dread and anticipation that easily overcomes its TV-movie lighting and production values.
Extras A trailer and that’s it. Pity…
The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane is released on October 20th