Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nicolas Gessner, "The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane" (1976)

What was it about the 70's that helped produce such a startling quantity of compelling films? Perhaps it had something to do with the social revolutions of the 60's and the cynicism that resulted when the idealism of those times began to seem naive. A lot of people learned the lesson that absolute beliefs and the black-and-white mentality of the preceding decades were insufficient for a real understanding of modern life. There appears to be a greater sense of relativism in the narratives of the stories presented in the 1970's. This meant that there were very few easy answers to be found in the films of those years, and that there was very little subject matter that was off-limits. Looking back today, these qualities make some of the least known films of that era a lot more interesting than the majority of movies released over the last twenty-five years.

So it's really no surprise anymore when I run across a title from the 70's (that no one's ever heard of) and it ends up being both entertaining and thought-provoking. Such was the case with The little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane, starring a 13-year old Jody Foster. It's a twisted little thriller/mystery that presents an unflinching look at a teenager left completely to her own devices. Rynn (Foster) has moved to a quaintly charming New England town with her father, who has distinguished himself as a successful poet. The pair remains a mystery to the rest of the villagers, as they are rarely seen outside of their house. This suits Rynn just fine, as she is a precociously intelligent and cultured girl. Her poise and maturity belie her young age. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent to the viewer that Rynn is given an extraordinary amount of responsibility for herself and the household. She receives all visitors, and explains that her father is not to be disturbed.

Of course her apparent isolation concerns some "good"citizens and draws the attention of other "not-so-good" folks. She is an easy target for both altruism and exploitation, depending upon one's ability to relate to an adolescent who is clearly advanced beyond her years. The owner of the house Rynn lives in senses that something is amiss in the living arrangements, and resolves to discover the truth. This matronly lady immediately clashes with the spirited and willful girl who challenges her ideas of propriety. The landlady's son (played by Martin Sheen) also makes an appearance that presents its own difficulties. This pervert has his own unwholesome designs and a taste for vulnerable adolescence. Meanwhile there is the town cop and his nephew Mario (Scott Jacoby), who could end up being Rynn's only allies.

The viewer is drawn in by the immediate mysteries of Rynn's absentee father and his daughter's secrets. How has she developed her protective instincts and her ability to look after herself? To what extent is she truly self-reliant and independent? The introduction of Mario allows the audience to slowly get to know these answers, as the two kids develop a bond of trust and affection. But given the categorization of this film, it's easy to predict that there will be no idyllic existence for these young friends. The tension builds as the main threat is identified, and Rynn's back story is told. Director Nicolas Gessner doles out his answers gradually, and keeps his audience engaged. The performances are uniformly excellent and the pacing is lively without becoming harried.

Still the ultimate success of The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane is wholly dependent on Foster's ability to convincingly portray her character. Had Rynn been portrayed by a less competent child actor, then the movie may have been a complete disaster. Not surprisingly, considering her other barely-pubescent work (most notably Taxi Driver), Foster carries off her role with tremendous assurance and skill. And she is given a substantial assist by the creepily intense Martin Sheen, who (in my opinion) should have never quit playing villains. He is almost disturbingly effective as a nasty child-molester. He even commits atrocities on Rynn's pet hamster.

There are several astonishing moments in this film that I doubt one would see in today's cinema. Internet ramblings suggest that this is among Foster's least favorite celluloid memories. Evidently she was bothered by the notion that people would believe that she had actually appeared naked on-screen. In reality her character was briefly played by her real-life older sister Connie in that scene. However that fleeting image alone (which actually occurs during a scene of sweet innocence) would have been rewarded with a NC-17 rating today.

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Blogger John Morris said...

I hate the fact that I remember seeing that movie many years ago. I left a haunting powerful memory.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Wow... did you see it on network television? That must have been some experience. Anyway, I found that it holds up well thirty years later.

8:58 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

It's a pretty early memory. I must have seen it on regular TV, That's all we had. I suppose, it may have been several years after the film came out.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

What specifically do you remember from it?

9:51 AM  

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