Nell (film)


Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Apted
Produced by Jodie Foster
Renee Missel
Graham Place
Written by William Nicholson
Mark Handley
Based on Idioglossia
by Mark Handley
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Dante Spinotti
Edited by Jim Clark
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • December 16, 1994 (1994-12-16)
Running time
113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $31 million[1]
Box office $106.7 million[2]

Nell is a 1994 American drama film starring Jodie Foster as a young woman who has to face other people for the first time after being raised by her mother in an isolated cabin. The film also co-starred Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Richard Libertini, and Nick Searcy. The film was directed by Michael Apted, and was based on Mark Handley's play Idioglossia. The play was inspired by Handley's time living in the Cascade Mountains in the 1970s, and the story of Poto and Cabengo, a pair of twins who created their own language.[3]

The original music score is composed by Mark Isham. Foster was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for her role. She also won the first Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress. The film was given a limited release on December 16, 1994, before expanding into wide release on December 23, 1994.


When stroke victim Violet Kellty dies in her isolated cabin in the North Carolina mountains, Dr. Jerome "Jerry" Lovell, the town doctor, finds a terrified young woman hiding in the house rafters. She speaks angrily and rapidly, but seems to have a language of her own. Looking at Violet's Bible, Jerry finds a note asking whoever finds it to look after Violet's daughter Nell. Sheriff Todd Peterson shows Jerry a news clipping that Nell was conceived through rape.

Jerry seeks the help of Dr. Paula Olsen, a researcher working with autistic children. Paula and her colleague Dr. Alexander "Al" Paley are interested in studying a "wild child" (feral child), and Al continues calling Nell this even after studying films showing that Nell does not fit the "wild child" profile. Paula and Al get a court order to institutionalize Nell for further study. Jerry hires lawyer Don Fontana and prevents it. The judge gives Jerry and Paula three months to interact with Nell and discover her needs. Paula shows up on a houseboat with electronic equipment to monitor Nell's behavior while Jerry chooses to stay in Nell's cabin and quietly observe.

Paula discovers that Nell's seemingly indecipherable language is English, based partly on her mother's aphasic speech after a stroke, and partly on the secret language she shared with her decades-deceased identical twin sister. Jerry and Paula begin a grudging friendship.

Nell sleeps during the day or works inside her home and is active outdoors only after sunset. She explains to Jerry that her mother told her about the rape and warned her that men were evildoers. As Nell comes to trust Jerry, she sees him as a friend, the "gah'inja" her mother promised would come. Jerry later realizes that "gah'inja" is Nell's phrase for "guardian angel." Using popcorn as an incentive, Jerry is able to lead Nell outside and into the sun. Nell leads Jerry and Paula to the decayed remains of her identical twin sister, May, who died in a fall while the two were playing in the woods.

Mike Ibarra, a reporter, learns of Nell's existence and visits her cabin. Nell is curious of the visitor at first, but when he snaps a photo, the flash frightens Nell. Jerry arrives and throws the reporter out. Paula believes that Nell would be safer in a hospital, while Jerry feels that Nell should be left alone and allowed to live as she pleases. The two decide that Nell should be shown a little of the world, and they make the decision to bring Nell into town.

While in town, Nell befriends Mary, Todd's depressed wife, but also encounters some raunchy boys in a pool hall until Jerry gets her out. With increased intrusion by the press, Jerry and Paula take Nell to a hospital for her protection. There, Nell becomes extremely despondent and unresponsive. Jerry removes her from the hospital and hides her in a hotel. Paula joins him, and the two admit that they love each other.

At the court hearing the next day, Al, who wants to study Nell in a controlled environment, delivers his opinion that Nell has Asperger syndrome and belongs in an institution. Nell then comes forward and, with Jerry interpreting, speaks for herself. Five years later, Jerry and Paula bring their daughter, Ruthie, to visit Nell in her house. It is Nell's birthday, and friends surround her.


Production history

Production took place in North Carolina, including the town of Robbinsville and the city of Charlotte.


Box office

The film debuted with $5.7 million.[4] It eventually grossed $33.6 million domestically while bringing over $73 million around the world to a total of $106.6 million worldwide.

Critical reaction

Reviews were mixed, praising the stars' performances while expressing disappointment in the storyline. Jodie Foster was given high marks. The Washington Post's review noted that "Jodie Foster, transcendent in the bravura title role, is far grander than the film itself, and her performance helps camouflage the weaknesses of its structure and the naivete of its themes."[5] In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin noted that: "For all its technical brilliance, not even Ms. Foster's intense, accomplished performance in the title role holds much surprise. The wild-child story of "Nell" unfolds in unexpectedly predictable ways, clinging fiercely to the banal thought that Nell's innocence makes her purer than anyone else in the story." Maslin also wished the film had explored Nell's adult sexuality.[6] Roger Ebert liked the movie, commenting that "Despite its predictable philosophy, however, Nell is an effective film, and a moving one." He also singled out the performances of Foster and Neeson.[7] The film currently holds a score of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.[8]

Awards and nominations

Award Subject Nominee Result
Academy Awards Best Actress Jodie Foster Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Nominated
MTV Movie Awards Best Female Performance Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Best Leading Actress Won
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Won
Golden Screen Awards Best Actress Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Motion Picture - Drama Nominated
Renee Missel Nominated
Graham Place Nominated
Best Original Score Mark Isham Nominated


  1. "Nell - PowerGrid". Retrieved April 12, 2016.
  2. "Nell at Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 2010-09-29.
  4. Thomas, Kevin (December 21, 1994). "Dumb' Laughs = a Smart Payoffers : Box office: Jim Carreys (bumble bee tuna) vehicle pulls a 'Gump,' taking in $16.2 million on an otherwise slow film-going weekend.". Los Angeles Times.
  5. Kempley, Rita (December 25, 1994). "Nell". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  6. Maslin, Janet (December 14, 1994). "Nell (1994) FILM REVIEW: NELL; A Woman Within a Wild Child, As Revealed by Jodie Foster". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  7. Ebert, Roger (December 23, 1994). "Nell". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  8. "Nell". Rotten Tomatoes.
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