Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Films: Nell
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Nell is the sort of movie that I should like, since it deals significantly with language. More specifically, it deals with a language spoken by a single person, a sort of private language that has been learned and created through a series of accidents. I love stuff like this. Language creation, and languages like pidgins and creoles are fascinating to me. Based on that, this should be a movie not only that I love, but that I should have seen and loved years ago.

And yet here we are, with this being the first time I’ve seen this, and it turns out I’m not so much in love with it as tolerant of it. There’s a particular bit of…not irony, but something in that neighborhood with Jodie Foster’s nomination for playing Nell, the woman who speaks the unique language and who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (which, based on her behavior, seems like a very mild diagnosis). Had this been called Neil, there’s a solid chance the role would have won an Oscar. The conventional wisdom is that men win Oscars playing someone who is mentally or physically challenged in some significant way.

Honestly, if you aren’t familiar with Nell, you already know most of the plot. One day in the wilderness of North Carolina, a young man delivering groceries finds that an old woman who lived on her own has died. When I say she was in the wilderness, the old woman lived about as far out on her own as anyone, having virtually no contact with the rest of the world. When the local doctor, Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) comes out to see what has happened, he discovers an adult woman who is apparently the daughter of the dead woman. Nell (Jodie Foster) speaks her own language that seems to be a combination of neologisms of her own and English that is greatly affected by learning the language from her mother, who had suffered a stroke.

Seeking assistance for what to do with Nell, Jerry contacts Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), a researcher who words with autistic children. The two essentially battle over what will happen to Nell. Paula wants her studied, since her language is unique and since children raised almost completely outside of human society would lend a great deal of information on (for instance) the nature/nurture debate. Jerry thinks this is a terrible fate for her and protests. The case goes to court, and the judge, in a rare bit of Solomonic wisdom, declares that he will allow Nell to be observed for three months and make a determination then.

What this means for us is two things. First, it means we’re going to get a lot of Nell speaking nonsense words and a slow development of a lexicon of what those things mean. Some are English words with dropped or slurred consonants (remember, her teacher had a stroke). “Jerry” becomes “Je’y” and “Paula” becomes “Pau,” for instance. Other words appear to be entirely made up, like “chickabee.” The other thing that happens is we’re going to (of course) get a budding relationship between Jerry and Paula, or Je’y and Pau, if you prefer.

So let’s talk about exactly what makes Nell crawl under my skin in a bad way. A big part of this is that it ends up being extremely sappy. Nell is depicted as not having Asperger’s but as being autistic. In the world of the film, that means that she talks in a breathy sing-song, often repeating words over and over. It’s annoying to say the least, and is often followed up by Foster’s hearty laugh, which doesn't fit.

I understand the desire to make Nell herself the sort of magical character who, because of her being essentially untouched by “the world” is pure and purely good. Nell is an innocent, and in the world of the movie, that means that Nell has and can do no wrong. Everything she does and thinks is motivated entirely by either her own purity or the fact that she is being visually or mentally assaulted by the “real world.”

And that’s really it, and that’s exactly what I object to. Nell wants to create this sort of world where Nell is an almost holy creature, who is ruined and destroyed by the world no matter the action and no matter the actions taken by Jerry and Paula. Nell’s inability to speak a standard English is evidence of her own purity. It’s sappy, and that’s as big a sin as being boring. It’s a movie of the week, and After School Special, and that’s pretty depressing.

Why to watch Nell: Language is cool.
Why not to watch: The sap content is very high.


  1. Hints of Rousseau's "noble savage." The filmmakers should've gone for Hobbes's "state of nature."

    1. It's not that far from a reimagining of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

  2. Yeah, that story of a person untouched by our civilization somehow being clean and holy is not exactly new. A person unencumbered by ancestral sin must be a Messiah or something like that.
    I enjoyed the premise of the movie, but the longer it drew out the more I thought I preferred E.T.

    1. I get the desire to tell this story. There is something fascinating about the idea. In this case, though, it gets very sappy very quickly, and that kills my interest.