Nell (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

idioglossia [Gr. -  of distinct tongue], a form of dyslalia in which the person affected consistently makes substitutions in his speech sounds to such an extent that he seems to speak a language of his own.

"Idioglossia" doesn't have the sexy ring of a blockbuster movie title, but it was the painstakingly accurate title of Mark Handley's original source material, a stage play about Nell, a "wild child" from the Great Smoky Mountains who spoke her own language. Raised by her mama in complete isolation from society for decades, she and her mother developed their own form of English. When the mother finally died, the State of North Carolina had on its hands a thirty year old woman who was incapable of communicating with the world, or understanding its ways, but who owned just about enough property to form her own state.

How does the Modern State come to grips with such a situation in a compassionate and civilized world? In this story, the courts assigned two psychologists to study the woman, to learn to communicate in her idiolect, and to make a recommendation back to the court. I think that is the way we humans would like to visualize ourselves disposing of such a case, just as we all like to envision ourselves as champions of educating our children. In the real world, teachers generally have too many students and are rarely allowed to do their jobs, while social workers have so many cases to handle that it is unlikely that two such compassionate, intelligent, high-level professionals would be assigned full-time to a single case for three months. If such a thing were possible, however, the result might turn out something like it did in this film. At least I like to think it would. Like most of us, I would like to believe that the failings of our species can be attributed more to our limited resources than to some kind of malice intrinsic to our natures.

There are many different reasons why we love people, and there are just as many reasons why we love movies - entertainment, education, emotional stimulation, thrills, and intellectual engagement, to name a few. One of the most powerful reasons is that some films have the ability to mix images and sounds and ideas in a way that penetrates into the deepest levels of our brain, transports us into a different mood, and makes us aware, if only for a short time, of the greater possibilities of humanity. We call them "feel-good" movies, often with a sneer of contempt attached, but I mean for no pejorative meaning to be attached to that term here. Nell is a 'feel-good" movie that is intended to open our eyes to see the luminous angels which can sometimes lurk inside of us.

Some critics felt that the film was false. In some ways they are right. It may have some clumsy moments and artificial elements. Foster looked much too beautiful for the role, for example. Look at the picture to the left. Does that look like the dentition of a woman raised in the woods, without contact with civilization for 25 years? That certainly struck a false note.  In my opinion, the film would have worked better if Nell had looked like what such a person really would have looked like, and that lack of physical beauty would have made the script richer as well. It is always easy for us to love beauty, but it's a greater triumph if we can overcome superficial ugliness to find inner beauty.

In general, however, those sorts of problems seem like quibbles in light of the film's greater generosity of spirit. The script handles an ambitious and difficult premise in a reasonable and thoughtful way.

It is filled with beauty. The "wild child" turns out to be neither retarded nor feral, but a perfectly capable woman who has been raised in a different culture with a different language. She turns out to have a great spiritual purity which affects those around her. The two shrinks have their weaknesses, but are also special people whose intellectual curiosity about Nell is matched by their concern for her welfare. The fourth beautiful main character is the luminescent mountain country of the Carolinas, made glorious in summer by the sun and shadows, and photographed here to look more like a dream of Eden than a mere chunk of planetary sod and water.
As an adult, Jodie Foster may be the single most inconsistent actress in film history. At her best, in Silence of the Lambs, and in The Accused, she is iconic, transcending her contemporaries, establishing a world where no other actress could be imagined in her parts. At her worst, in Backtrack for example, she is so weak, so out of touch with the role that we are embarrassed to watch her struggle for credibility. Nell is in her positive column, a performance better in some ways than the ones which earned her Oscars. She was nominated for Nell, but lost to Jessica Lange in Blue Sky. I admire Ms. Lange, but that decision doesn't seem correct to me.


Jodie Foster is seen completely naked from all angles in various scenes.

Liam Neeson is naked, but seen only from the side.

DVD info from Amazon UK

  • NOTE: this film is NOT available on Region 1 DVD. This link goes to the British Amazon. The Region 2 disk has no meaningful features, but features a beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the film.

SIDEBAR: Does Jodie have the greatest gap between her best and worst work? I can't think of a way to quantify the comparison. With directors we can compare their highest rated film at IMDb to their lowest, but there is no such objective standard for performers. Jodie would certainly be a nominee, as would Robert Downey, Jr.  If I had to make a call on that question at this moment, I'd have to say the winner would be Rowan Atkinson. If you saw only the best episodes of Blackadder, you might conclude that Atkinson was the greatest comic genius since Chaplin. If you saw only the lamest episodes of Mr. Bean, you might conclude that he was the single unfunniest person in the history of humanity, possibly excepting Carrot Top, the prophet Jeremiah, Torquemada, and Donald Rumsfeld.


Nell (1994). The film is as least as good as I had remembered, and possibly much better. I adored this film on so many levels. The establishment, left to their own devices, would have institutionalized Nell, become rich and famous studying her case, then left her in a mental facility, thus the film has the kind of anti-establishment message that I always respond to. I couldn't agree more with Scoopy's score of B. This is a wonderful film that nearly everyone should enjoy.

The part Scoop doesn't mention is how much the two psychologists learn from Nell. Listen carefully for the last line of the film.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General panel consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • It did quite well for a quiet (and long - 153 minutes) sort of movie about personal feelings - $33 million domestic gross. Some of that had to derive from the fame and popularity of Jodie Foster, who was then at the peak of her career, and stark naked to boot.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B (both reviewers). At one time it was highly touted and may have been an overrated film, like The Hours. Over the years, however, it has become underrated, and is only scored 6.2 at IMDb.

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