Friday, August 16, 2013

FI: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Canada/France, 1977
Directed by Nicolas Gessner

When you were young, did you have a friend whose parents you just never met? Maybe they were always working, or just popped out for a jog, or were otherwise conveniently occupied whenever you came over. Maybe your friend seemed a bit nervous whenever you mentioned this, to the extent that you kinda thought they didn't have parents at all? Well, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane basically takes that as its premise, feeling like the anxiety-filled flip side to one of Hal Ashby's outsider comedies. Here, resourceful 13-year-old Rynn (Jodie Foster) keeps up appearances in an attempt to fool her small Long Island village into thinking she's not living by herself. Unfortunately, Rynn's fa├žade begins to crack when landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) and her predatory adult son Frank (Martin Sheen) come calling, leaving her in a dangerous situation.

As a sort of exploitation film where most of the exploitation happens off-screen, Little Girl lives and dies by the creepiness and discomfort it instills in its audience. Director Nicolas Gessner holds shots for just a little too long, or leads with the camera in ways that makes you anticipate bad things before they actually happen. The script, adapted by Laird Koenig from his own novel, focuses on these psychological thrills, and on the games of cat-and-mouse Rynn plays to protect her secrets. But it also holds back details and builds a mystery around just how and why Rynn has wound up alone. That mystery's resolution may or may not feel satisfying, but it is intriguing while it lasts.

Little Girl derives the majority of its creep-factor from its universally-excellent cast. Sheen's oily, sadistic performance is matched by Smith's embodiment of WASP-y, self-important small-town royalty; though both characters strain credibility, they are of a piece with the film's tone, and both actors keep them just recognizable enough to remain grounded. In the lead role, Foster belies her age with a cold, business-like dedication to doing whatever it takes to remain independent. With a less effective young star, this would fall apart, but Foster has the impetuous spunk and precocious intelligence to drive the film's action and fuel its mysteries. It may seem a little slight, even for its 91-minute running time, but Little Girl is pulpy and entertaining enough to overcome its issues.

FYI: If you'd like to judge for yourself, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is available to stream on Netflix Watch Instantly (at the time of publication).

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