The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

As is tradition, we’re spending the bulk of this January looking back at our favorite movie discoveries of the past calendar year, reducing hundreds of hours of thoughtful engagement with art to bite-size, shareable lists that will be forgotten by next month at the latest.  That year-in-review listmaking process always tends focus on The New and The Novel, prioritizing discussion of movies that we’ve only seen once or twice without allowing them much time to saturate.  Something that might be slipping through the cracks in that ritual is the value of the rewatch, noting what movies climbed in our esteem in years-later reappraisal.  Personally, the movie that most improved in rewatch for me last year was the 1971 rodent-attack horror Willard.  I had remembered Willard being painfully dull when I first saw it about fifteen years ago, likely because I was comparing it against the over-the-top mayhem of its Crispin Glover remake in the nü-metal 2000s.  On revisit, I was horrified to discover how much I now relate to the titular rat-training avenger.  Willard just wants the freedom to be lazy & enjoy his go-nowhere hobby (training an army of loyal, bloodthirsty rats), snapping back at the people in his life who pester him with chores & busy work.  It’s Cinema of the Hassled, a disturbingly relatable mindset in an era when we’re pressured to remain constantly busy at work & home even though the world is crumbling around us, with most outlets for social leisure taken off the table in the greater interest of public health.  Fortunately, I cannot weaponize my collection of thrift-store DVDs to attack my enemies on command, so the world is safe (for now), but I still saw a little too much of myself in Willard’s desire to shrink away from the world in his solitary, niche-interest hobbies without having to suffer the hassles of his daily responsibilities.

I won’t say that I “saw myself” in the 1976 thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane—as it’s populated with the most reprehensible scum to ever grace the silver screen—but it did remind me a lot of Willard‘s Cinema of the Hassled tensions.  In the film, a teenage Jodie Foster just wants to keep to herself in her beautiful house, but all the creeps of the world (cops, rapists, busybodies) keep barging in to disturb her solitude.  They deserve the worst and they get it, fucking around and subsequently finding out, as Foster poisons the rude-mannered intruders and buries them in her spacious back yard.  Contemporary marketing for the film didn’t know how to deal with the moral ambiguity of a teenager murdering adults simply for being a bother.  Foster’s framed as a kind of Bad Seed serial-killer brat on the promotional poster, as if she were killing for sport.  In truth, she’s doing her best to live a peaceful, solitary life – educating herself in academic subjects like Dickinson, Chopin, and the Hebrew language instead of wasting her time on more traditional, narrow-minded schooling.  Her parents are out of the picture, but she can clearly take care of herself despite being in her early teens, asking “How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?”.  It’s only the adult authority figures who violate that personhood—barging into her home uninvited to impose their will on her like schoolyard bullies—who suffer her delicate wrath, so there isn’t much sympathy to go around for her victims.  It’s the ultimate Latchkey Kid movie, really, in that Foster is a fully autonomous child who would be perfectly capable of taking care of herself without any adult intervention.  In fact, the adult intervention in her life is almost purely villainous, an obstacle for her living her best life, free of needless hassle.

In the 2003 remake of Willard, Crispin Glover repeatedly shrieks “This is my house!” at the adult bullies who scheme to hassle him out of his family home.  My favorite thing about the original Willard is how uncomfortably relatable I found Willard as a character; my favorite thing about the remake is how much Crispin Glover is an absolute freak.  I’m only bringing that up here to note that a baby-faced Jodie Foster also repeatedly demands “Get out of my house” in her own Cinema of the Hassled thriller, but delivers it with a much more believable, authoritative self-assertion.  She very well may have been the greatest child actor of all time, conveying an intelligence & emotional maturity that’s hard to find in precocious theatre kids who don’t know how to play to the camera.  Unfortunately, that perceived maturity often landed her in incredibly risqué, morally shaky movies.  The same year that Foster starred in Taxi Driver as a teenage prostitute, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane asked her to fight off the unwanted sexual advances of a fully adult Martin Sheen (playing a small-town, trust-fund creep) and to engage in a consensual, onscreen sexual relationship with a teen boy several years her senior.  The film’s teen-romance dynamic would not survive the rabid Age Gap Discourse that seems to be constantly chewing up & spitting out new movie releases on social media hellpits like Twitter these days, but it’s mostly sweet in its portrayal.  Still, the film asked that Foster appear nude onscreen in the movie’s only sex scene, and her older, adult sister had to act as a body double to protect her from that exploitation.  Even as a one-of-a-kind talent in real life, Foster was hassled by a grotesque movie industry that did not have her well-being in mind.  Thankfully, it seems her family was around to protect her as best as they could, and she didn’t have to poison any lecherous movie producers and bury them on the backlot (that we know of, anyway).

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s also incredibly well-written & performed.  It’s like a deranged stage play that got out of hand and became a movie by mistake, with sharply skilled actors verbally sparring in a single location for most of its unbearably tense runtime.  That single location happens to be a teenage Jodie Foster’s living room, which she’ll politely ask you to leave several times before her demands for privacy get more volatile & lethal.  Unlike original-flavor Willard, I don’t expect to revisit this film too many times in the future, even though I appreciated it just as much as a Cinema of the Hassled thriller.  Foster’s hasslers are just too goddamn skeezy for the film to invite multiple rewatches.  There are few people out there more frequently & grotesquely hassled than a teenage girl, and Foster clearly had to put up with a ton of undue bullying onscreen & off as a precocious kid with a talent for playing mature-for-her-age hardasses.  At least in this case you get to watch her take calm, level-headed revenge on those bullies, may they rest in shit.

-Brandon Ledet

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