"How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?"
13-year-old Renn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) and her father Lester have just moved to a small New England fishing village. Lester is a reclusive and eccentric published poet who never likes to be disturbed while he's translating or writing. He never seems to leave his study, and he's frequently out of town in New York City or London or some other big city tending to business. At least according to Renn, who spends most, if not all, of her time by herself. She's an extremely intelligent and perceptive girl who home schools herself, listens to classical music, reads Emily Dickinson, cooks all her own meals and teaches herself things like Hebrew. All she really wants is for people to leave her alone. People like Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen). You see, Frank likes little girls... in a way he shouldn't like little girls. And he has no problem conveying to Renn just how pretty he thinks she is. He also wonders why such a pretty, smart girl doesn't have a boyfriend and doesn't go to school like the rest of the kids her age. It's no secret around town that Frank is a "pervert" and child molester, and because he senses that Renn is lonely he starts following her around hoping for more than just a piece of cake to give his kids. But Renn has some deep, dark secrets of her own that Frank may not want to know about.
Frank's mother Cora (Alexis Smith), an uppity, nosy, judgmental, extremely nasty social climber who's leased the home to Renn and her father for three years, begins snooping around after she finds out her son has been there. Not pleased with Renn's standoffish behavior and the fact she's "rude," Cora begins trying to cause problems for them and eventually threatens to kick them out. But that's all solved when she's killed in a freak accident down in the cellar. Renn decides to leave her down there and go about her business like nothing has happened. After all, there's something down in the cellar that caused Cora to panic in the first place and it's something Renn wants to keep hidden. Now faced with the problem of Cora's car parked right in front of her house, Renn lucks out that Mario (Scott Jacoby) happens by on his bicycle. A crippled amateur magician and high school student, Mario agrees to help Renn out of her bind. He takes the car into town and leaves it, then returns for dinner. The two quickly form a bond, Mario gets the secretive girl to open up to him and obligatory young love ensues.
Caught up in a web of deceit, Renn has a hard time keeping her story straight about her father. She'll tell one person he's out of town and another he's in his study working or sleeping and can't be disturbed. Most of the intrigue in this film is discovering just what's going on. Did the father die? Did Renn kill him? Was he ever there in the first place? What secret is hidden in the cellar? These are questions your faithful reviewer isn't going to answer here because that would be to spoil all of the wonderful and clever surprises and plot twists this film offers.
Stripped down, Little Girl is little more than a series of lengthy character interactions. In some regards, it resembles a made-for-TV movie and in other ways it seems derived from a stage play. Thankfully, an extremely good cast and Laird Koenig's excellent and insightful screenplay (which is based on his own novel) makes these scenes plausible, interesting and suspenseful. Sheen is very credible playing a truly despicable and unlikable character. He does a fantastic job getting you to hate his guts by the end of the film, whether it's him using sly tactics to try to bully and blackmail young Renn into giving in to him, or burning her pet hamster with a cigarette and tossing it in the fireplace. Smith - who has just two scenes - is his equal as an icy, domineering witch so concerned with her reputation in town she has no problem covering up for her son's crimes. Jacoby is charming in his role and his scenes with Foster are poignant and seem authentic, and Mort Shuman, also this film's music supervisor and a noted songwriter, scores in a nice supporting part as Mario's uncle; a friendly police officer.
The centerpiece of the film is Foster, though. The young actress (who was the same age as her character during production) starred in this the same year she won critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for playing a teen prostitute in Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER. As a result, this particular performance was somewhat overlooked. Regardless, she was a positively perfect choice for playing this clever, precocious character. The part seems almost tailor-made for her, though reportedly Foster disliked the film (and claims to have had problems with one of the producers). Some eyebrows were definitely raised over a nude scene, but it was actually Foster's older sister Connie who body doubled for her.
Filmed primarily in Quebec, Canada (with some footage shot in Maine) and the winner of Best Horror Film and Best Actress awards at the 1978 Saturn Awards.