[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Children have joined the cinema’s minorities, what with Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Taxi Driver, Small Change, Bugsy Malone et al.; and if the movement has an on-screen leader it’s surely the extraordinary Jodie Foster. What, one wonders, will happen to this child in the next few years? Will the movies destroy her or will she prove too tough? Will she have a decent teens in spite of the media circus surrounding her? Her interviews reveal a bright, thoroughly sensible girl, and one keeps one’s fingers crossed.
The Canadian-made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the best film of her career to date, but it’s the most thought-provoking. Where do director Nicholas Gessner and scenarist Laird Koenig (who adapts his own novel with few changes) stand in relation to Rynn Jacobs, their 13-year-old heroine, played so superlatively well by Foster? Rynn is an intellectual child trying to live on her own, independent of family, school boards, adoption agencies or anyone else. Her father has taught her to avoid “them”, warning her of embourgeoisment; but now he’s dead (although nobody knows it but her) and she has to stand on her own against the forces of officialdom in the small New England town down the road from the lonely Jacobs house. She also, more pressingly, has to stand against the paedophile son (Martin Sheen) of a local bigwig. And what’s her answer? Death. Rynn has, before film’s start, polished off her own unpleasant mother with cyanide and stashed the corpse in the cellar. The bigwig—an inquisitive, patronising, rich and anti-Semitic real-estate lady (Alexis Smith), powerful on many a local committee—perishes quite accidentally when investigating unlawfully. The son finds evidence, tries blackmail and, at film’s end, notices too late the scent of bitter almonds emanating from his teacup. As he coughs and splutters, the camera just holds and holds and holds on Rynn’s angelic face, and the credits come up over it slowly, all the time without her so much as blinking.
Is it a happy ending? I’m not sure whether Gessner and Koenig know, and I sure don’t. Rynn tells her one confidant, Mario (Scott Jacoby), a crippled schoolboy, that the poison she fed her mother was just a white powder to her, she didn’t know what it really was. Dad had said it would be good for mother’s stomach. Is Rynn telling the truth? Is it likely so intelligent a girl would fall for such a yarn? Will Rynn kill again? Did she help her dying father kill himself? Is she as angelic as she seems, or is she a high-functioning psychopath? Will Mario, who’s in love with her, dispose of the body of Frank, the paedophile, as he has the other two corpses? Or will he, being a more conventional type, take fright and expose Rynn to his uncle, the local cop? Will Rynn then kill Mario? You got me. Just as all these questions are forming in the spectator’s head, Gessner and Koenig end the movie. Meaningful ambiguity doesn’t come into it. That last, achingly long close-up has a powerful charge, all right, but it’s not enough to cancel out our curiosity. A case could be made for saying that the point of the movie is that society forces children to become criminals in order to maintain their independence, that most children (all?), not wishing to break the law, lose their freedom early and never get it back. But, equally, a case could be made for the film being anarchist: Rynn’s committing of what society deems the most heinous of crimes, murder, is in fact an act to be celebrated, as she has succeeded in stopping the corrupt and rich man whom the law has never stopped, and in so doing has asserted her independence of a society that the film has shown to be wholly vicious and false. She has, in other words, has courage enough to take the step that lonely Mario and his sad, frustrated uncle, the only other sympathetic people around, have never quite steeled themselves to take.
I’m afraid that I can’t quite believe an open-ended reading is deliberately intended: Koenig doesn’t plug up the holes in narrative credibility quite firmly enough (school boards, welfare people, taxmen and the like can’t be told handy lies very long, certainly not by a 13-year-old), and what we’re left with is an extremely interesting rough draft, a plot pregnant with intriguing ideas that never quite achieves artistic childbirth. But Gessner does handle the atmosphere of a sad, wet, dull, “nice” country town very well, and the banality of smalltown evil, the suffocating sense of paedophilia, civic corruption, racism and repression all being things that are, hideously, quite everyday and ordinary and drab, is strongly felt. The creepiest and scariest thing about Martin Sheen’s performance, as Frank, is that he’s less scary or creepy than just smug; his itch to rape Rynn is a kind of languid middle-class tic. When (to our audience surprise) Rynn goes to bed with Mario, the film’s uncertainty of tone is most apparent and irritating – and worrying. Is Gessner implying that it’s OK for a minor to have sex with someone she thinks she loves? Would he be so elaborately “lyrical” about it if Mario were a bit older? If he were Frank’s age? Our unexpected – and unnecessary – glimpse of Jodie Foster’s nude body in this scene is also worrying. I wouldn’t want to think that it was put in for the benefit of dirty old men in the audience, or to attract their patronage at the box office—but why was it put in? The film seems resolutely on the side of the children and of “Children’s Lib”, but it could have made its points far more decisively, with greater clarity and less nervousness, and one would like to be surer about the attitude taken by writer and director. Even so, one looks forward with some interest to Gessner’s next, and with greater interest to Jodie Foster’s. Where can she go from here?
© 1977 Pierre Greenfield
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE
Direction: Nicholas Gessner. Screenplay: Laird Koenig, after his novel. Cinematography: René Verzier. Art direction: Robert Prévost. Editing: Yves Langlois. Creative consultant: Richard C. Meyer. Music: Christian Jaubert. Production: Zev Braun.
The players: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby, Mort Shuman.
2010 Afterword: Well, we all know where Jodie Foster went from there, but whatever happened to Nicholas Gessner and Laird Koenig? And whatever happened to this film, at which I’ve never been able to take a second look?