Nell (film)

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Nell (1994 film poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Apted
Written byWilliam Nicholson
Mark Handley
Based onIdioglossia
by Mark Handley (play)
Produced byJodie Foster
Renée Missel
Graham Place
CinematographyDante Spinotti
Edited byJim Clark
Music byMark Isham
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 16, 1994 (1994-12-16)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$24.5 million[1]
Box office$106.7 million[2]

Nell is a 1994 American drama film directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay written by William Nicholson. The film stars Jodie Foster (who also produced) as Nell Kellty, a young woman who has to face other people for the first time after being raised by her mother in an isolated cabin. Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Richard Libertini, and Nick Searcy are featured in supporting roles. Based on Mark Handley's play Idioglossia, the script for Nell was developed by co-producer Renée Missel and was inspired by Handley's time living in the Cascade Mountains in the 1970s, and the story of Poto and Cabengo, twins who created their own language.[3] Partway through the movie, the other characters discover that Nell is actually speaking English, just mispronouncing all the words. As an example, when Nell says "Nay Cay Chickabay," she is actually saying "Don't Cry Chickadee."

Nell received limited release on December 16, 1994, before expanding into wide release on December 23. The film upon release received mixed reviews from critics who praised the direction, score and performances but criticised its execution and limited exploration of the titular character, and was a box office success grossing over $106 million worldwide, on a $24.5 million production budget.

Foster's performance was widely praised and brought her various awards and nominations. She won the inaugural Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama. The film also received two additional nominations at the 52nd Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture - Drama, and Best Original Score.


When Violet Kellty, who had an undiagnosed stroke, 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 a tent by 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." To neutralize her fear of evildoers and getting raped, Paula has Jerry swim in the lake with Nell and she feels his body, hugs him, and has fun with him. 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. He realizes the reporter is not with the press and apologizes for overreacting, but asks him to forget he ever met her. 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. An argument ensues between the two with Paula accusing Jerry of using Nell for his own pleasure, but Nell manages to calm them down after hearing their conversation. 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, goes shopping with Jerry and Paula, but also encounters some raunchy boys in a pool hall until Jerry gets her out due to her showing her body in front of everyone at their request. Jerry and Paula give Nell a book about love, romance, and intimacy to help her learn about making love, which she shows to understand by having Jerry and Paula touch each other’s faces and strengthening their bond. With increased intrusion by the press, Jerry and Paula take Nell to a hospital for her protection. There, Nell becomes extremely despondent and unresponsive after seeing a vision of May. 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 and ensures that there is no need to worry and fear for her, as she has no greater sorrows than everyone else. Five years later, Jerry and Paula bring their daughter, Ruthie, to visit Nell in her house on her birthday, and friends surround her. Nell treats Ruthie like a little sister and takes her to the lake, although this reminds her of May.



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


Box office[edit]

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 response[edit]

Jodie Foster's performance as the titular character received widespread critical acclaim and earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Nell received mixed reviews from critics, who praised the cast but criticised the screenplay. Foster received widespread praise for her performance. 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 holds a score of 57% on Rotten Tomatoes from 35 reviews as of 2022, and with an average rating of 5.20/10. The site's consensus states: "Despite a committed performance by Jodie Foster, Nell opts for ponderous melodrama instead of engaging with the ethical dilemmas of socializing its titular wild child."[8] On Metacritic it has a score of 60% based on reviews from 23 critics.[9]

Year-end lists[edit]


Award Subject Nominee Result
Academy Awards Best Actress Jodie Foster Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Nominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Won
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actress Won
MTV Movie Awards Best Female Performance Nominated
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Runner-up
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Runner-up
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Runner-up
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Runner-up
Goldene Kamera Best International Actress Won
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role 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 (1994) - JPBox-Office". JPBox-Office. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  2. ^ "Nell at Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 2010-09-29.
  3. ^ John Hartl (Dec 22, 1994). "Entertainment & the Arts - The Story Of 'Nell' -- Jodie Foster Plays An Isloated Woman With Open Emotions". Seattle Times Newspaper.
  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. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 23, 1994). "Nell". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on October 11, 2012. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  8. ^ "Nell". Rotten Tomatoes.
  9. ^ "Nell". Metacritic. Retrieved 2021-01-01.
  10. ^ Hurley, John (December 30, 1994). "Movie Industry Hit Highs and Lows in '94". Staten Island Advance. p. D11.
  11. ^ Sheid, Christopher (December 30, 1994). "A year in review: Movies". The Munster Times.
  12. ^ "The Year's Best". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. December 25, 1994. p. K/1.
  13. ^ Simon, Jeff (January 1, 1995). "Movies: Once More, with Feeling". The Buffalo News. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  14. ^ Pickle, Betsy (December 30, 1994). "Searching for the Top 10... Whenever They May Be". Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 3.
  15. ^ Dudek, Duane (December 30, 1994). "1994 was a year of slim pickings". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 3.
  16. ^ MacCambridge, Michael (December 22, 1994). "it's a LOVE-HATE thing". Austin American-Statesman (Final ed.). p. 38.

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