Following the death of an aphasic hermit woman in the woods of North Carolina, it is discovered that she is survived by a daughter (Jodie Foster), a young woman who lives by herself as a kind of wild child, speaking a private language, and intensely fearful of human contact. The authorities decide that she must be normalized for her own good, but Dr. Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) disagrees, arguing that, although different, she is fine and has not asked for help. He insists on getting her informed consent before treatment. A judge agrees to give Lovell three months to observe the woman, whose name turns out to be Nell, and find evidence that she should not be treated against her will.

Lovell recruits a partner, psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), and together they set up an observation base on a houseboat with a view of Nell's cabin. From there Lovell makes a series of attempts to win Nell's confidence and understand her language. (Olsen for much of the film mainly represents a set of professional values more conservative that Lovell's unconventional therapeutic moves--which, for example, make her suspect that he is sexually attracted to Nell. Her own sexual presence, while downplayed, serves to defuse this potential.)

Lovell wins Nell's confidence (she calls him her "guardian angel") and the secrets of her speech and wounded psyche (a twin sister died young, and Nell has apparently at least witnessed sexual abuse). Following a court hearing in which Nell speaks in her own defense, the world gets word of her case and journalists descend on her remote cabin on foot and by helicopter.

Fearing that civilization will destroy Nell, Lovell arranges to have her hospitalized as the least available evil. However, when he finds her drugged, he sees that hospitalization is no solution, and he carries Nell out of the hospital and back to her cabin. He tries to make her understand that he is not her guardian angel.

The film switches to a warmly-lit lakeside scene five years later, when all problems seem to have been solved. Lovell and Olsen, who are married with a little girl, and several other sympathetic characters are picnicking with Nell near her cabin, and Nell is shown entranced and somehow emotionally fulfilled in being with the child, who is the age at which her twin sister died.


This film has its share of improbabilities, as the neatness of the ending may suggest, but it is compelling because of Jodie Foster's dramatic and persuasive portrayal of a sensitive woman trapped in a linguistic and emotional cage, and also because the issues it raises are important and difficult ones. The film steadfastly argues for the right to be different, both for Foster's character and for Neeson's doctor, who in his attempt to understand and help Nell is both more ingenious and less inhibited than conventional doctors (Richardson's character frequently reminds us of this).

How should we apply informed consent? How should the conflicting claims of society and individuals be reconciled in such matters? Who decides what conditions require treatment and what outcomes are acceptable ? Do doctors have an obligation to protect their patients against treatment that will profoundly change their natures? What is the proper role of intuition and spontaneity in psychotherapy? Is there a legitimate therapeutic role for a doctor's sexual identity (as distinct from active sexuality)? The film comes down on the side of freedom for good people on all these questions, and if some of that seems too easy, the film is nevertheless a fine starting point for discussion.


Jodie Foster was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Primary Source

Fox Video