After returning from Universal Studios yesterday, I decided to ease back into the week with a couple of flicks. Hulu isn’t the best of streaming services in terms of content, but lately I’ve uncovered some good older films on the platform, and occasionally I’ll uncover some hidden gems.
To be sure, there’s a good bit of garbage, too, especially this time of year, when the budget horror flicks pop up like weeds. I watched 1972’s The Last House on the Left last night before catching the subject of this review, and it was a lurid bit of early 70s exploitation. It didn’t necessarily endorse the violence and depravity it depicted, but it certainly seemed to revel in it. At its best, it was a morality tale about the dangers of the hippie movement and misguided youthful energy; at its worst, it was an excuse to torture pretty girls on screen. I’d recommend giving it a pass.
The second film I watched, however, is one I will highly recommend: 1976’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. It stars a barely-thirteen-year old Jodie Foster in a command performance, along with a young Martin Sheen, who must have been about twenty-six at the time.
The movie is the suspenseful story of a young girl living on her own in a small town in rural Maine. Her father has passed away from a terminal illness, and her mother is out of the picture for reasons the film reveals. The father, a famous poet, made painstaking arrangements for his daughter to live on her own and to support herself.
The child, Rynn Jacobs, is exceptionally intelligent, and spends her evenings listening to classical music and learning Hebrew. She loves her house and her freedom, but the residents of her town—including her overbearing landlord and the landlord’s leering pervert of a son (Sheen)—grow suspicious. Rynn’s father is never around, and the oily Frank Hallet seeks to corner the young girl into an inappropriate sexual relationship.
Rynn does have some friends, though—a kindly Italian police officer who checks up on her, and his nephew, Mario, with whom Rynn develops a friendship and, slowly, a romance. Mario helps Rynn keep up the charade of her life, even disguising himself as Rynn’s deceased father at one point.
Life gets difficult for Rynn when her stuffy, bigoted landlady begins snooping around and barging into the place, and even worse when Mario succumbs to pneumonia and is hospitalized. Rynn learns along the way that the best laid plans often go astray, and she must rely on her intellect to survive.
It’s interesting that Sheen—who plays a pedophile pervert in the film—wanted to play the part of Mario, Rynn’s slightly-older teen love interest. Remember, Jodie Foster was thirteen at the time, while Sheen was twenty-six—twice her age. He looks it, too, in the film; indeed, I took his character to be a bit older than the actor portraying him. Scott Jacoby, who ultimately played Mario, looks entirely age appropriate.
It’s also weird the fascination 1970s directors had with movies about underaged girls. Foster was fresh off of success portraying a child prostitute in Taxi Driver (1976). There was a nude scene (I don’t remember this in the Hulu version, thank goodness) that Foster refused to do (her older sister, who was twenty-one, did it instead). Foster was a very pretty young lady, but she definitely was a little girl—her cheeks were still chubby with baby fat!
It calls to mind the current controversy raging over Netflix’s distribution of Cuties, the French film about underaged girls performing sexually-explicit dance routines. I haven’t seen that film, and don’t intend to do so, but it suggests this lurid, lecherous fascination with young flesh is not new to Hollywood pervs.
That context aside, the movie is very good. Foster’s portrayal of Rynn is moving and convincing. She comes across as a very precocious child stuck between the conformist expectations of the world and her dead father’s careful planning. The love story between Rynn and Mario is touching, and Rynn’s attempts to avoid being forced into the “stultifying” environment of school are clever.
It’s a lost gem, one worth unearthing.
Tip The Portly Politico
Support quality commentary on politics, education, culture, and the arts with your one-time donation.