The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane:
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) Starring Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, and Alexis Smith. Directed by Nicholas Gessner. Written by Laird Koenig.
For the modern viewer, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a stunning film in that it defies so many of the ageist clichés we have come to expect.
Jodie Foster (who filmed this at age 14) plays a 13-year-old who lives alone with her father, or so she says. But no one sees this father, and the girl doesn't like people asking about him. She also doesn't like people going into the cellar.
Yep, it's a thriller. But don't worry. Jodie Foster is not the villain. She's the hero. See? We're breaking ageist rules already.
Unlike most fictional teenagers, Foster's character is smart and knowledgeable. She avoids school, so she has time to hit the library and pursue a serious education, develop a strong vocabulary, do some critical thinking about her relationship to society, and learn useful skills like embalming a dead body.
At War with the World for Good Reason
Foster is at odds with adult-dominated society, and in this film, the adult-dominated society is the bad guy, driving Foster to resort to extremes just to live with dignity and independence.
She lives in the same ageist society Americans all grow up in, a society these filmmakers recognize is worth rejecting. An early scene shows Foster getting some cash at her bank, and before she's even done counting the money, the teller says, "Next please," signaling the older (and therefore more important) next customer to approach and receive friendlier service.
A nosey, middle-aged neighbor (Alexis Smith) barges into Foster's home, touches her things, and even pries through her personal belongings (reading a personal book inscription without Foster's permission), then demands that Foster move a table so Smith can get into Foster's cellar. Finally Foster stands up to her: "This is my house," (a line often uttered in film by adults but too rarely by teenagers). And does the middle-ager apologize? Of course not. She scolds without irony, "You are an extraordinarily rude little girl who's going to do exactly as I say." Like too many adults in real life, this rude woman labels as "rude" any youth who does not treat her with unquestioning deference.
We want to see Foster kill this obnoxious woman, but unfortunately, the filmmakers do not let her. Instead, they have the woman kill herself by accident. This is a rare (for this film), unfortunate moment when the filmmakers, instead of criticising ageism, bow to it. An older heroine would have dispatched the woman herself. Indeed, the set up and the plot are so similar to stories where protagonists do kill, film-critics often misremember this accidental death and instead describe Foster's character as a serial killer. Only in the film's final minute do the filmmakers actually allow Foster to deliberately kill anyone (her one victim being the rapist who has stalked her since the film's beginning), and even that death is merely implied, not actually shown.
These filmmakers presumably replaced murders with convenient, unintended deaths because they feared audiences would loose sympathy for Foster if she killed obnoxious and dangerous people on purpose. Sadly, they may have been correct. Bowing to that ageism in audience-members, unfortunately, leaves the heroine rather weak, doing surprisingly little on her own to advance the film's plot.
Challenging Ageism With No Apologies
Despite needing convenient accidents to do her dirty work for her, Foster's character is surprisingly strong in other respects. She is determined to live independently no matter how hard society tries to force her to depend on adults.
What's more amazing, Foster is allowed to articulate her desire for independence and dignity. During an argument between Foster and Smith, we get this exchange:
"You're 13. Why aren't you in school?"
"13 means I have no rights? Is that it?"
In most fiction, the very notion of youth rights cannot be raised except as a joke. A fictional child might say, "Mom, I want a cookie. I have rights!" But in a serious way? Forget it. Filmmakers want us to laugh at youth rights, not contemplate them.
In the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume, high schoolers all worship a teenaged pirate radio DJ as a great rebel and messenger. And what is the DJ's rebellious message that resonates so deeply with his fellow teenagers? "Eat your cereal with a fork and do your homework in the dark." That's not his entire message, of course; he also makes farting sounds. Pump's screenwriter could not bring himself to articulate a serious pro-youth message, so he threw plausibility under the bus and just expected moviegoers to believe teenagers would worship a messenger who has nothing to say.
But The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane never hesitates to let Foster articulate an egalitarian message. "How old do you have to be before people start treating you as a person?" she asks rhetorically.
She has a conversation with her boyfriend where she explains why she avoids school:
"School is having people tell you what life is and never finding out by yourself."
"Yeah, but kids have to go to school."
Great question, Jodie.
The movie's centerpiece is a scene where Foster explains what happened to her father. She talks about the note he left her before he died. She explains what her father told her: "People wouldn't understand. They would order me around, tell me what to do, and try to make me into the person they wanted me to be. Since I was only a kid, I couldn't say anything. I'd have to stay alone, keep out of trouble, and make myself very small in the world." And she reveals the advice he gave her: "Don't give in and play their game. Fight them any way you have to. Survive."
And fight Foster does. Just to be left alone. Just to have her own little home in the world. She struggles to stay under the radar of those who would bring her under their control, and she struggles to out-maneuver those who prey on children whom society leaves unprotected when they resist the domination of adults.
A sharp departure from everything else in Hollywood history, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is unapologetically pro-youth, railing against a society that robs youth of freedom and dignity and forces them to go to extremes to steal these things back even in small doses. And this film was made so well that even middle-aged critics largely supported this film. Those few critics who opposed it were still forced to respect the bold way it delivered its pro-youth message. One such critic wrote, "Despite its absurd story line of a serial killer child living home alone that is hard to take seriously and its story being so amorally disturbing that it can't be justified in rational terms, it nevertheless rather sanely and astutely argues for children's rights and their desire to be treated fairly and with respect." (1)
Even if astutely arguing for children's rights were all this film had going for it, that would be enough to warrant our applause. Throw in some powerful acting performances from Jodie Foster (the same year she won her Oscar for Taxi Driver), Martin Sheen (as the rapist), and others along with some quality filmmaking, and you've got a film every person should see.