Jodie Foster plays an overgrown wild child who speaks her own mysterious language in Nell, and while it’s fairly obvious that the film has been shaped to win Foster awards, that doesn’t in itself render it unworthy. In fact, Foster gives an audacious performance. Her Nell, who has stringy dark brown hair, rough pale skin, and a stare of beatific innocence that regularly collapses into fright, is like a fawn who’s just woken up and gone into shock at all the beauty and terror in the world.

Discovered in a cabin in the North Carolina woods, where her mother has recently died, Nell comes under the observation of Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), a saintly local physician, and Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), a cool-eyed psychologist. For three months the two professionals set up camp on a nearby houseboat, where, amid much flirtatious sparring, they become Nell’s nurturing mommy and daddy. When Nell tries to talk to Lovell, her arms reach out with plaintive yearning — she’s as pure in her desire to communicate as Boris Karloff in Frankenstein — and her mouth forms weird, drawling words, like ”chickabay” and ”eviduh,” that sound like some sort of redneck Swedish, It turns out they’re her primitive variation on English (”eviduh” means ”evildoer”). As Lovell begins to decipher their meaning, he realizes that this spacey backwoods nymph, who at moments can seem almost autistically withdrawn, is, in fact, a grown woman with her faculties — and soul — intact. What’s more, she has a lesson to impart. I’m not quite sure how to render it in Nell-speak, but roughly translated it goes: All you need is love.

By now, Foster has earned the right to indulge in this kind of showpiece virtuosity. Nell, however, makes the mistake of viewing its heroine with dewy-eyed reverence, turning her into a sweet wild angel of the woods. Does Nell really have to take mystical midnight skinny-dips? Or, during a trip to town, wander into a bar full of lip-smacking youths? (It’s hard to shake the feeling that Foster is revisiting the site of her first Oscar triumph, 1988’s The Accused.) Foster’s performance, in its raw poetic physicality, often recalls Holly Hunter’s in The Piano, but that film recognized the pride and crazy will of its passionately buttoned-up heroine. Nell is like The Piano remade as a safe, prosaic TV movie. It milks the myth of the noble savage for all its sentimental reassurance — raised apart from civilization, human beings are nice and innocent and good — and then drapes it in gauzy psycho-banalities about how the rest of us should live. (In a way that would please Republicans, it turns out.) By the end, the pieties of Nell fall into place all too neatly. B-

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