Teenager, Rynn Jacobs is portrayed by two time Best Actress Oscar winner, Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs). Rynn is someone who enjoys reading her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, listening to classical music, such as Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and studying Hebrew, but she is also hiding a secret from the world, and it is constantly teetering on the brink of being discovered. The secret she is guarding forces the intelligent and resourceful Rynn to engage in evasion while dealing with people, and to go to any lengths necessary in order to protect herself. “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” was directed by Nicolas Gessner (Spaceship Earth). Written for the screen by Laird Koenig, based on his novel of the same name, it is a mixture of the genres of drama, mystery, and thriller. This ninety one minute film from 1976 is the type that, from the start, will keep viewers guessing as to the truth regarding Rynn’s living situation. She doesn’t attend school; her father, a well known poet, is a man who never seems to have time to meet with anyone that comes to the house; and the whereabouts of the girl’s mother are revealed further along in the movie.
The film opens up with a brief scene of Rynn walking on the beach, immediately followed by her standing in the kitchen of her home, in front of a cake decorated with candles. Making her way from the kitchen into the living room, she pauses in front of a mirror while holding the cake, smiles, and wishes herself a happy birthday. It is a self-celebrated event that is interrupted by Frank Hallet, played by Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Martin Sheen (The American President). He was out with his children, and they hadn’t arrived at the house yet, because Rynn’s birthday also coincides with Halloween. While talking with Rynn, Sheen’s character gives off a creepy vibe in the manner in which he speaks and he also crosses the line when he touches her inappropriately. It is later revealed that Frank Hallet has a history of wrongful behavior when it comes to how he acts with children, and he will also demonstrate his character’s sadistic side during the film. Surprisingly, local law enforcement, in the small New England town where the movie is set, are fully aware of Hallet’s proclivities, but are seemingly powerless to do anything in order to safeguard those whom he seeks to exploit. Koenig seems to want to make a point of this issue by showcasing how a man, such as Frank, just because he is an adult, can come and go as he pleases, even under a dark cloud of suspicion, while Rynn due to nothing more than her age, has to go out of her way to live on the periphery of life in order to maintain her anonymity. Calling too much attention to herself before she turns eighteen will threaten to destroy the lifestyle she and her father feel she is meant to live.
The next morning, the landlady, Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith), Frank’s mother, arrives at the house and enters without permission. She is a disrespectful, pushy person, who has stopped by to pick up preserve jars she had loaned to the previous tenant, as well as speak to Rynn’s father. While inside the house she takes to not only re-arranging the furniture, but displays an instant dislike for Rynn. Mrs. Hallet begins to verbally antagonize Rynn after she tells the woman not to go in the cellar where the jars are being stored, but to come back later to pick them up. Mrs. Hallet doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do by a child. She threatens to revoke the lease on the house, even though it has been paid in advance for three years, as well as alert the school board, of which she is a member, that Rynn is not attending school. Rynn gets her to leave when she informs Mrs. Hallet that her son had been to the house last evening, and perhaps he shouldn’t be alone with a young girl whose father isn’t home. Mrs. Hallet leaves without the jars, but she will be back in due time.
When she returns, at first she spins a story about how the school board was very interested in hearing about Rynn’s situation. Rynn, however, knows that she is lying because she verified with the county office when school board meetings take place. When Rynn informs Hallet that she can take her jars and Hallet sees that there are no tops on the jars, she enters the cellar via a trap door which is in the floor underneath the dining room table. After taking a few steps, she sees something that scares her and she screams. While attempting to leave, she lets go of the trap door, which closes and hits her in the head and the force of it kills her.
Enlisting the help of a stranger, with whom Rynn has a chance meeting, fellow teenager, Mario (Scott Jacoby), who walks with a limp and performs magic shows to earn money; he helps Rynn dispose of Mrs. Hallet’s car at the train station. The two will grow exceptionally close, and she will share with him all of what has transpired in her life. The only adult that Rynn has a liking for is, ironically, Mario’s uncle, Mr. Migliorti (Mort Shuman), who happens to be a police officer. He comes across as a well intentioned, nice guy, but even he starts to grow suspicious at the continued absence of Rynn’s father. He tries to speak with the man on several occasions, and is growing a bit tired of Rynn’s excuses of her father always being away on business in New York, working in his study, or not feeling well and in bed.
Trivia buffs take note: “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” was the first time Jodie Foster ever received top billing in a film. On January 14, 1978 at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA, Jodie Foster won the Saturn Award for best actress for her role as Rynn, and the film won the same award for best horror film. Director Nicolas Gessner, writer Laird Koenig and actress Alexis Smith were nominated, but lost out to George Lucas for “Star Wars” and Steven Spielberg for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” who tied for best director, to Lucas for his writing on “Star Wars,” and to Susan Tyrrell for “Bad.” There is a very brief nude scene of Foster’s character stripping out of her clothes from a back profile point-of-view and getting into bed with Mario; Foster refused to appear naked in the film – her sister Connie was used as her body double for the shot. Mort Shuman, who plays officer Migliorti, was part of a successful song writing team along with Doc Pomus. They wrote chart topping hits such as “Teenager in Love,” and “This Magic Moment,” among other famous songs. 1976 was a busy year professionally for Foster, who appeared in a total of five films. The other movies were Martin Scorsese’s iconic “Taxi Driver,” “Bugsy Malone,” “Echoes of a Summer,” and the Disney movie “Freaky Friday.”
What is the real truth about Rynn’s father never being around? Where is her mother? Why isn’t she taking a more active role in her teenage daughter’s life? Where will the police investigation of Mrs. Hallet’s disappearance lead to? Will Frank Hallet ever get to enact his disgusting fantasies regarding Rynn? All of those question and more will be answered if you view the movie. The film is not fast paced, but slowly builds to its climax. It is almost completely devoid of any kind of blood and gore, and is the sort of movie which provokes questions in the viewer both while watching and after it is over. I have watched the film a half dozen times over the years, and each time, I always pause to imagine what might have happened to Rynn, after the final shot of the film. If you’ve seen the movie, or get a chance to see it, I would love to hear your thoughts regarding not only what might have happened to Rynn, but on the movie as well.