"The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane," set in a New England sea-coast town but actually shot in Quebec two years ago as a Canadian-French re-production, stars Jodie Foster in a role that takes some advantage of her unique, impressive precocity - a self-reliant 13-year-old who attempts to sustain a solitary, independent existence by concealing the death of her poet father.

Ultimately, this account of a bright child's peculiarly dangerous social deception is confined within murder mystery bounds that are too glib, too imorally contrived, to be satisfying. The young heroine is burdened with more skeletons in her closet than she needs if her plight is to remain credible and sympathetic.

While it's too pat, "Little Girl" is several cuts above thrillers in the dopey, bedraggled class recently exemplified by "Burnt Offerings" and "The Sentinel." You may leave feeling disappointed at the way the story is resolved, but you aren't likely to feel like walking out contemptuously long before the denouement.Laird Koenig, who adapted his own novel, works more conventionally than one might wish, but at least he knows how to place one melodramatic foot after the other, a feat of coordination that eludes many people posing as screen-writers these days. Director Nicholas Gessner is deft enough to keep "Little Girl" engrossing from start to finish, and he springs a few witty, creepy surprises.

In her efforts to remain master of her fate and domicile, Jodie Foster is threatened by a pair of undesirables - Alexis Smith as a domineering, bigoted realtor and Martin Sheen as her son, a vicious creep with a yen for little girls - and assisted by a superficially unlikely suitor, Scott Jacoby as a crippled high school boy named Mario, who does magic tricks.

Given the overload of "sensitivity" that surrounds this juvenile Mario the Magician who must hobble around on a lame leg and then contract pneumonia too, it's a wonder Jacoby never seems the least mawkish. On the contrary, his Mario is a remarkably funny, resourceful boy, and the most appealing moments in the film trace the friendship that develops between Mario and the girl, named Rynn, after he catches onto her charade and decides to help her maintain it.

The film really ought to explore this relationship in depth. Foster and Jacoby play very attractively together, and the premise might have ended more agreeably if it had been manipulated as a juvenile romance with undertones of suspense rather than a Gothic murder story with undertones of romance. The outgoing Mario seems capable of drawing Rynn into an orbit that might be more rewarding and the secure than the devious, shaky isolation she's trying to protect. One could imagine these characters in a beguiling variation on the Sleeping Beauty legend, a Sleeping Beauty story about precocious adolescents.

The characters played by Alexis Smith and Martin Sheen ask for drastic comeuppances, especially the latter, who not only makes lewd overtures to the heroine but also tortures and kills her pet hamster. These fairy tale witches in modern dress barely deserve to live, but Koenig might have exercised more restraint in the acts of deploying and eliminating them. The heroine ends up tainted with a good deal of their sadism, a somewhat disagreeable turn of events. It's rather like starting to watch "Wait Until Dark" and then finished up with "The Bad Seed" or "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Jodie Foster's clear-eyed spunkiness and emotional assurance bring more authority and resonance to the character of Rynn that the plot can quite support. At the moment Foster is ideally suited to portray extraordinary kids, and the general idea here is very promising - a precocious girl making trouble for herself as only a precocious girl might be tempted to.

Foster is the least deferential of juvenile actors. Her self-possession lends a special undercurrent of apprehension to the scenes in which she defies would-be intimidating adults like Smith and Sheen. You admire her and yet fear for her. She needs roles that can exploit the challenging, straight-forward aspect of her personality while suggesting the inherent vulnerability of her youth and sex. Rynn isn't an adequate role in the long run, but it suggests the direction filmmakers who valuea resource like Jodie Foster might be interested in pursuing.