An unusual thriller that’s constantly on the edge of becoming a full-on horror movie, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane plays a clever game of making the audience wonder whether the title character is a victim or a villain. Jodie Foster, who wasn’t even 15 when she made the picture, gives a characteristically precocious performance as Rynn Jacobs, a teenager occupying a remote house in a coastal Maine town. Most of the picture comprises attempts by local residents to determine the whereabouts of Rynn’s father, whom she alternately claims is away on business or home but unavailable to receive callers. Some of the people poking around Rynn’s house have good intentions, including fellow teenager Mario (Scott Jacoby), and some have nefarious designs, such as pedophile Frank (Martin Sheen).
Written by Laird Koenig (from his novel of the same name) and directed by Nicolas Gessner, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane does a lot with a little, concentrating most of the action in one location (Rynn’s house) and creating a great deal of Edgar Allen Poe-styled tension from the creepy premise of a young girl living alone with mysteries and shadows. The presence of Sheen’s character ups the anxiety level considerably, and Sheen creepily delivers many lines in a seductive whisper—watching such a good actor incarnate a predator is genuinely disturbing. Furthermore, the fact that young Foster is so formidable only makes the overall situation more believable. Some elements of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane are formulaic, such as the nosy neighbor who pays a price for searching inside the basement of Rynn’s house, but Koenig’s use of stock components helps answer logic questions before they become problematic; for instance, the presence of a diligent local cop (Mort Shuman) explains how Rynn’s resourcefulness has kept authorities from digging too deeply into her circumstances.
The final revelation of how Rynn found herself alone is a stretch, and the payoff to Mario’s character arc is even more outlandish, but The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane ultimately pays off well with a climactic confrontation that’s satisfying and unnerving at the same time. Since the picture was made as a low-budget French-Canadian production, it’s easy to see how a bit more Hollywood polish could have smoothed off the rough edges, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone surpassing either Foster or Sheen in their roles. So, while The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane might not meet the criteria for anyone’s list of the best ’70s shockers, it’s at the very least an atmospheric diversion with memorably grim nuances.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: GROOVY