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Mind Over Pop Culture: Nell

The ‘90s don’t seem like that long ago, certainly not 20 years. But having watched a bunch of ‘90s movies for this blog, I’ve come away with the thought that things really have changed. Nell brought that point home very clearly.

The movie Nell was made in 1994 and stars Jodie Foster as the title character. A young woman raised in isolation by her grandmother, she is “found” after the older woman’s death, and it is discovered that she speaks a made-up language. The local town doctor, played by Liam Neeson, and a psychiatrist, played by the late Natasha Richardson, work with Nell in hopes of helping her. They fight the courts, the media and each other about the best way to handle Nell’s situation. Eventually, they are able to help her have a fulfilling life.

Here’s the thing though. Before she’s “found,” Nell is having a fulfilling life. She doesn’t speak English (her made-up language is eventually discovered to be a mix of the made up language she and her deceased twin sister spoke and a very strong accent), but she’s capable of taking care of herself. The doctors originally believe her to be autistic, but over time, they realize that no, she’s just used to being alone. When they first meet her, Neeson’s character physically holds her down so Richardson’s character can take her blood, despite her clearly telling them no. She’s perfectly capable of making the doctors aware of her wishes; it just takes them a bit of time to understand her. By the end of the movie, she testifies for herself in court (with Neeson’s translation) about how she wants to go home, to the place they found her at the beginning of the movie.

I was amazed at how tone deaf this movie actually was. I remember seeing it in high school and thinking it was profound, but it’s really not. Nell is forcibly taken from her home and tested on because she’s an oddity. The movie makes it seem like this is a great thing. They even make it seem like the two doctors are doing her a favor by removing her from her home and forcing her to learn English (even when she’s catatonic in bed out of fear). It’s terrible, and it made me feel a little dirty. Movies like this inform people its okay to force other human beings to conform to society, no matter what damage it does to them. It’s really creepy how self-congratulatory this movie is about some serious violations of civil rights.

Nell is a dramatic view of the “feral child,” a few cases from history of children raised without regular human interaction or with horrible abuse that caused them to fear human interaction. (For some genuinely interesting stories about these children, read the examples on Wikipedia: Instead of doing justice to this interesting and tragic phenomenon, this movie just perpetuates the stereotype that people who don’t act like you (or speak English) don’t deserve the same respect that you do. A movie about acquiring language at a later time in life would be fascinating, but this isn’t it. I don’t know if it’s because Jodie Foster is obviously in her 30s, but she wouldn’t have been able to survive to that age if she couldn’t take care of herself in some way. Foster really commits to the role, but in an uncomfortable, might be mocking the character, sort of way.

If you haven’t seen Nell, don’t. It’s likely to make you feel as uncomfortable as it made me feel. If you have seen it, what did you think? Did you watch it recently?

Next week, we’ll start the Halloween movies with one of the significant ones, Fatal Attraction.


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