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 by
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]

Nell received a limited release on December 16, 1994, before expanding into wide release on December 23. The film received mixed reviews from critics upon its release, with praise for the direction, score, and performances, but criticism for its execution and limited exploration of the titular character. Despite this, it 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 secluded cabin in the North Carolina mountains, Dr. Jerome "Jerry" Lovell, the town doctor, discovers a frightened young woman hiding in the house rafters. She speaks angrily and rapidly, but seems to communicate using a unique language. While examining Violet's Bible, Jerry finds a note instructing whoever discovers it to care for Violet's daughter, Nell. Sheriff Todd Peterson shows Jerry a news clipping revealing that Nell was conceived through rape. Jerry seeks assistance from Dr. Paula Olsen, a researcher specializing in autistic children. Paula, along with her colleague Dr. Alexander "Al" Paley, is interested in studying a "wild child" (feral child), although Al persists in labeling Nell as such despite evidence to the contrary in filmed observations.

Paula and Al obtain a court order to institutionalize Nell for further study, but Jerry hires lawyer Don Fontana to prevent this. The judge grants Jerry and Paula three months to interact with Nell and understand her needs. Paula arrives on a houseboat equipped with electronic monitoring equipment to observe Nell's behavior, while Jerry chooses to stay in a tent near Nell's cabin to quietly observe her.

Paula eventually deduces that Nell's seemingly indecipherable language is a form of English, influenced by her mother's aphasic speech after a stroke and her secret language shared with her deceased identical twin sister. A tentative friendship forms between Jerry and Paula. Nell, who sleeps during the day and only ventures outside after sunset, comes to trust Jerry, viewing him as the "gah'inja" her mother promised would arrive. Jerry later realizes that "gah'inja" is Nell's term for "guardian angel."

To alleviate Nell's fear of evildoers and the possibility of rape, Paula encourages Jerry to swim with Nell in the lake, allowing her to feel his body, hug him, and have fun. Using popcorn as an incentive, Jerry succeeds in coaxing Nell outside into the sunlight. Nell leads Jerry and Paula to the decayed remains of her identical twin sister, May, who died in a fall while playing in the woods.

When reporter Mike Ibarra learns of Nell's existence and visits her cabin, Nell initially displays curiosity, but the camera flash frightens her. Jerry intervenes, ejecting the reporter. He later realizes the reporter isn't from the press and apologizes for overreacting but requests that he forget their encounter. Paula believes that Nell would be safer in a hospital, while Jerry argues for leaving Nell alone to live as she pleases. An argument ensues, with Paula accusing Jerry of exploiting Nell for his own satisfaction. However, Nell manages to calm them down after overhearing their conversation.

Ultimately, they decide to introduce Nell to the world, taking her to town. There, Nell befriends Mary, Todd's depressed wife, goes shopping with Jerry and Paula, but also encounters some unruly boys in a pool hall. Jerry intervenes when they ask her to expose herself. Jerry and Paula provide Nell with a book about love, romance, and intimacy to help her understand the concept. She demonstrates her understanding by having Jerry and Paula touch each other's faces, strengthening their bond.

With increased media intrusion, 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 confess their love for each other.

At the subsequent court hearing, Al, who wants to study Nell in a controlled environment, asserts that Nell has Asperger syndrome and should be institutionalized. Nell then steps forward and, with Jerry interpreting, speaks for herself, reassuring everyone that there is no need to fear or worry for her, as her sorrows are no greater than anyone else's.

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.

About the nude skinny-dipping scenes, Michael Apted said that Jodie Foster accepted them without problems, only complaining about the coldness of the water.[4]


Box office

The film debuted with $5.7 million.[5] 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

Jodie Foster's performance garnered widespread critical acclaim, earning her the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, in addition to 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."[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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."[9] On Metacritic it has a score of 60% based on reviews from 23 critics.[10]

Year-end lists


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. ^ "Jodie Foster relies on her instincts to tame a 'wild child'". Retrieved 28 May 2024.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Kempley, Rita (December 25, 1994). "Nell". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 23, 1994). "Nell". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on October 11, 2012. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  9. ^ "Nell". Rotten Tomatoes.
  10. ^ "Nell". Metacritic. Retrieved 2021-01-01.
  11. ^ Hurley, John (December 30, 1994). "Movie Industry Hit Highs and Lows in '94". Staten Island Advance. p. D11.
  12. ^ Sheid, Christopher (December 30, 1994). "A year in review: Movies". The Munster Times.
  13. ^ "The Year's Best". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. December 25, 1994. p. K/1.
  14. ^ Simon, Jeff (January 1, 1995). "Movies: Once More, with Feeling". The Buffalo News. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  15. ^ Pickle, Betsy (December 30, 1994). "Searching for the Top 10... Whenever They May Be". Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 3.
  16. ^ Dudek, Duane (December 30, 1994). "1994 was a year of slim pickings". Milwaukee Sentinel. p. 3.
  17. ^ MacCambridge, Michael (December 22, 1994). "it's a LOVE-HATE thing". Austin American-Statesman (Final ed.). p. 38.