Long before she was Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster had another life entirely. She won plaudits for her role as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver and sang her little heart out as Tallulah in the bizarre but essential viewing children’s gangster flick Bugsy Malone. Rather less famously, she appeared as a brave little girl defending her house against intruding adults in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane.
This is one of those films where any plot information is going to spoil the experience, so I shall be brief. Foster plays Rynn, a resourceful young girl who just wants to be left alone and get on with her life. Hindering her in this are a friendly local policeman and the landlady of the house she lives in, both of whom are suspicious about the absence of her parents, and the landlady’s son, who takes rather too much interest in Rynn. The mysteries of what is actually going on in the film are not particularly difficult to guess at, but it makes the film all the more enjoyable if you don’t know them before you start.
For enjoyable this film is! An undiscovered gem (alright, undiscovered by the masses, the rest of us sing its praises constantly), it feels remarkably fresh even as it celebrates its 35th birthday this year. It features yet another excellent performance from young Foster, and one which prefigures the subtle juxtaposition of fragility and toughness which would make her the perfect foil for Buffalo Bill. But I’m getting ahead of myself...Here she makes for an engaging heroine and, while we don’t know exactly what she is up to much of the time, we invariably want her to succeed.
Scott Jacoby provides some excellent support as the young magician with a limp who ends up helping Foster out. Their relationship is complex, frankly depicted and, most importantly, very believable. These two are not ‘movie kids’ but genuine people who react with genuine emotions. Jacoby had already essayed the role of the lone child struggling to defend his home to great acclaim in the well-regarded American TV Movie Bad Ronald, and it’s lovely to see him back on familiar ground here. It is truly a great shame that he never went on to bigger things, as both here and there he exhibits a genuine star quality.
Despite the marvellous central performances, the highlight of the film is Martin Sheen. Playing the paedophile son of Foster’s nosey landlady, his performance is a master class in creepy, from the very first scene where he strokes Foster’s wrists. Whether explaining Halloween traditions to a terrified Rynn or throwing crippled children across rooms, he is immaculately terrifying, all the more so when he isn’t actually being overtly threatening: his quiet air of menace defines chilling.
The rest of the cast all put in fine performances too, with even the minor characters coming across as unusually nuanced and real. The last words of praise must go to the people behind the camera, especially director Nicolas Gessner, who manages to make a script which could easily be a stage play feel effortlessly cinematic. This is not to diminish the power of the screenplay, with Laird Koenig adapting from his own novel, which never feels contrived despite certain aspects of the plot which could potentially have been laughable. The crisp cinematography of René Verzier is a perfect match for the vision of director and writer, subtle and occasionally painterly.
Verdict: Dark, creepy and beautiful, this film is a tremendous thriller showcasing some brilliant performances.