It is the night of Halloween, and thirteen-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) is alone in her house with her birthday cake when there's a knock at the door. She answers it and is greeted by the son of her landlady, Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen), who invites himself in, trudging mud across the clean floorboards. He starts asking her questions she does not wish to answer, such as where are her parents? But Rynn avoids the topic as she cuts him a couple of slices of cake for his sons; and when Frank begins to make unwanted advances, she orders him out. However, what if he won't take no for an answer?
Though Jodie Foster may not have liked this film much, nevertheless it has a small band of dedicated followers who see her in one of her most accustomed type of roles from this period of her career. Yes, here she was playng the capable, self-assured and self-sufficient girl once again (did she play anything else in 1976?), only this was taken to an extreme in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, so much so that her character is willing to kill to keep her lonely life the way she wants it.
Her parents, you see, are actually dead, and her poet father has passed on right after renting this house for the next three years. Not that Rynn wants anyone to know about that, so does not even go to school and gets her money from her father's bank account to keep herself supplied with food and other essentials. The only people who are threatening this way of life are the Hallets, as not only does local sex pervert Frank keep hanging around, but his mother (Alexis Smith) is intent on snooping too, asking Rynn where her father is and not getting a good answer.
While the film has a compelling premise, it is undercut by a flat presentation which makes it look as if it's a television special, or even a twisted educational production to inform thirteen-year-olds how to get by without parents: it's not a surprise to learn it was originally intended as a T.V. movie. Even though she was not enjoying herself, it's the talented Foster who is the best part of this, leaving us convinced that it's possible these events could happen in reality, yet there's an uneasy tone to many of the plot twists which sees Rynn make friends with a local boy, Mario (Scott Jacoby - or is it Matthew Modine?).
Mario helps Rynn with burying the body of Mrs Hallet. Oh, didn't I mention that she dies when the trapdoor to the cellar clonks her on the head? She was going down there to get some jars, but also to investigate and we must presume she finds the body of Mr Jacobs too, but later we discover that Rynn had poisoned her tea with cyanide, which may well have been a contributing factor to her demise. Mario highlights the adults versus kids theme, with even the nice policeman (Mort Shuman) not trusted enough with their secrets, making for an intriguing hour and a half which could have easily been sensational in its approach, but prefers to go for character study, though not always to good enough effect. And animal lovers be warned: the fate of Gordon the hamster is not a happy one.