I know that this cannot possibly be true, but I remember Nell being a really big deal when it came out. I mean, it was a big enough deal, Jodie Foster was nominated for an Academy Award and stuff, but I remember it being a big deal among kids at my school. That can’t be possible, can it? Why would kids have cared about this movie? Kids didn’t care about this movie. But that is how I remember it. Maybe the girls in my school wanted to be Nell? “Oooh, can you imagine? Living in a cabin in the forest all your life and speaking a silly made up language? Dreams really do come true for a lucky few, I guess.” That is my impression of a very real, very believable teenage girl from the mid-1990s. “I wish I was Nell, now let’s go listen to Dinosaur Jr. and drink OK.” I am quite confident that my memory is wrong and that I’m somehow conflating an NPR news piece I overheard in my mom’s car with genuine teenage enthusiasm. Surely everyone was too busy fucking and smoking weed to pay much attention to Jodie Foster’s portrayal of a “wild woman” in Michael Apted’s adaptation of a play. Anyway, now that we are all grown ups, let’s talk about this movie:

So, Nell is this lady who lives in a cabin in the woods and was raised by her mother. When the movie starts, her mom has died and a doctor (Liam Neeson) comes out to the house to see what’s up and that’s when he finds Nell. Hi, Nell! Nell screams. She has never been out of the house during the day, and has no electricity or running water or iPods or anything. She is a “wild woman.” In order to best determine how to help her, Liam Neeson meets with a child psychologist, played by his real-life wife, Natasha Richardson (R.I.P.). Natasha Richardson wants to put Nell into a hospital and study her, but Liam Neeson shows up in court and is like, no, don’t, and the court is like, “you have three months to study her in her natural habitat.” Wait, what? You guys, I’m not a lawyer, but the legal aspects of this movie seem very bizarre! Like, on what grounds do either of these people have claims for what happens to the lady in the woods? Maybe the state could make an argument for why she needs to be institutionalized, but surely two separate private citizens are not in charge of this? Anyway, they get a house boat and go out to study Nell. (Early on, in the houseboat, Liam Neeson is making fun of Natasha Richardson for her city ways, and says “no air conditioning, are you OK breathing raw air?” I would understand if he had something to say about the heat or something, but pretty sure air conditioning isn’t supposed to improve the “breathing quality” of the air? What is this movie talking about ever?)

Study study study. Nell Nell Nell. They learn how to speak her language. It’s some form of gibberish English, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since she was raised by her mother who was ostensibly a normal human being? But OK. They also learn that her mother got pregnant with her by being raped. Yikes. Liam Neeson in particular seems really into Nell in a way that is a little bit creepy, even when he insists that it’s not creepy. There is one conversation in particular that he has with Natasha Richardson on the houseboat one night while they are watching Nell skinny dip in the lake (?!) that is supposed to explain where he is coming from but actually does not explain it and if anything makes it way weirder? It goes like this:

Natasha Richardson: We shouldn’t be watching this.
Liam Neeson: Why?
Natasha Richardson: She’s naked.
Liam Neeson: So? I think she’s beautiful.
Natasha Richardson:
Liam Neeson: Do you think I want to abuse the patient-doctor relationship? Just because I think she’s beautiful doesn’t mean I want to have sexual intercourse with her.
Natasha Richardson:
Liam Neeson: I also think you’re beautiful.

HIDE YOUR NELLS, HIDE YOUR NATASHA RICHARDSON, WE RAPING EVERYBODY UP IN HERE. Good God that is a horrifying one-sided conversation for one person to have with another person alone in the woods. Anyway, people in town find out about Nell and you know what that means: news helicopters. Hahaha. You know how you are always watching the news and there is helicopter footage of someone who lives in a cabin? GET THE SCOOP!

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson take Nell into the city, because somehow that’s better? Now she is institutionalized in the hospital, so Liam Neeson kidnaps her. He kind of does a crappy job of it, but luckily it is the Disorderlies hospital.

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson and Nell end up back in court. Sure. I mean, the courtroom stuff makes basically no sense, but at least it is consistently ridiculous. Now they want to put Nell away for good because in the hospital she ran into a glass wall. Liam Neeson insists that she is a fully capable and beautiful Wolf Child who should just go live in the woods, but the judge is like “objection!” Finally, though, NELL GETS UP AND TESTIFIES IN COURT IN HER WEIRD LANGUAGE. This, apparently, is allowed. No one says anything. No objections are raised. Liam Neeson translates for her, and apparently that is admissible evidence? She says a bunch of stupid junk and the judge lets her go home.

The movie ends a couple years later and Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson are married with children, and they go to visit Nell whose abandoned nightmare cabin is now the perfect summer home. FIRE UP THE GRILL IT IS BARBECUE TIME!

Oh, right, I almost forgot: Nell used to have a sister, who I think killed herself by walking into the lake when she was 8 years old? That seems very young for someone to kill themselves, but it would be hard not to have any cartoons.

One of the weirdest things about Nell is that it’s based on a play. What I mean is, the whole thing is made up, and that’s weird! Obviously lots of stuff is made up in the movies. Most of it, really. But when you’re dealing with a particularly unique psychological situation you kind of expect that to be based on something that happened to someone. But this didn’t. It’s just some dude being like, “what would it be like if a lady grew up in a cabin and made up a new language? Let me pretend it’s like this.” Huh? I guess that does explain why none of the lawyers make any sense. “If I can make up a psychological condition that does not exist in recorded human history, surely I can make up the laws binding our society together.” It also explains why he thinks this would be The Biggest News Story of the year. “Everyone would probably be pretty interested in this thing I just made up.” But otherwise it’s just weird.

Then, of course, there is the whole “never go full retard” thing. I mean, Jodie Foster is a perfectly decent actress, and I guess what do I know because the Academy did see fit to nominate her for acting’s highest award for this performance, but it sure seems corny and embarrassing! Like, I mean:


If anyone should have gotten an award for this movie, it was Liam Neeson for keeping a straight face during his scenes with Jodie Foster. Very professional. He only broke character and shouted “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS, THIS IS EMBARRASSING” twice. Other less talented actors would have done this much more regularly. Although, Jodie Foster did deserve her win for Best Making This Face A Lot, 1994:

Did you know that this movie features both Nick Searcy and Jeremy Davies? It’s like a Justified season 2 reunion but in reverse chronological order! Neat! Strangely, they play a cop and a hillbilly. No typecasto.

Nell is not the worst movie of all time. It’s not even really on the list. Yes, the acting is sometimes laughable, and there are some things that just don’t make sense, like at one point in the end of the movie Liam Neeson starts talking to Natasha Richardson in Nell’s language? But it’s just a private conversation between the two of them? Why is he doing that? Stop it. The “evil” doctor from the institution who wants to put Nell away always says things that make no sense. Like, he points out that Nell was raised in the woods, and so she has “never seen a car, or a television, or a gun, or a Hershey bar.” Wait, a car and television, sure, but a gun? A Hershey bar? These hardly seem to be the things that people MUST have personal interaction with in order to function in modern society. (He also says, later, that if the news finds out about Nell–because always with the news, this movie, who directed this, Sarah Palin?–that Nell is going to need a lawyer and an agent. No she is not.) The movie is certainly pretentious, especially considering that it’s all just make believe. And the final courtroom scene in which it turns out that Nell was really the one who was teaching US the whole time commits the worst offense of all: being tired and predictable.

Personally, I had managed to live for 17 years without seeing Nell. The option of continuing to live my life without watching it has now closed. For me. But not for you. If you haven’t seen Nell, I highly suggest that you don’t! It’s just not very good!

Next week: Running With Scissors. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.

Comments (106)
  1. woozefa  |   Posted on Jun 13th, 2011 +28
  2. My brother and I were also really into this movie, but I remember the reason: boobs in a PG-13 movie. SCORE!

  3. TAY IN DA WIN!

  4. Looks like this “girl gone wild”…

    …is in need of proper psychological attention.

    TWIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIST!!!!!

    Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

  5. I preferred the sequel: Drag Me to Nell.

  6. I thought this was a biopic about Nell Carter, I guess not, give me a break feral child

    • I have not seen this movie, but just from this post it makes me think it is a look at the lighter side of feral children, with a dash of Benny and Joon on the side.

  7. On an unrelated point, I watched that clip you posted and I’ve never seen so many chubby/fat boys in one video before. Not saying I have a problem with curvy men or that any of them (you know who you are) should lose weight or feel bad, but it’s just something I laughed at inwardly and wanted to share.

  8. Gabe: For Whom the Nell Blows

  9. We watched Nell 4 times this weekend in Videogum chat with the sound off, and me blasting New Jack Swing songs, but we basically got the gist of it. Also, the Nell Carter references did not stop, and I was like Gimme A Break!

  10. Once again, I nominate this:

    Because no one does “white people problems” like Sofia Coppola. By which I mean, no one does them as myopically or pretentiously.

    • I’m going out on a limb to say that, yes, technically the French Revolution was, indeed, the problems that a group of white people had. And the movie was based on Antonia Fraser’s revolutionary book, in which her research broke new ground in our understanding of the mis-vilification of Marie Antoinette. That said, this isn’t “white people problems” in the way that, like, she broke her iPhone or something. (I still heart you, Babs Gordon! You got in the way of my serious face. I’m all good now.)

    • Dear sweet LORD, that movie makes me so fucking angry. Like, okay Sofia, you’re going to tell us how PUNK a bunch of rich, lazy aristocrats eating and (not) fucking in Versailles are when people are fighting over fucking bread in the streets of Paris? That is seriously like saying Margaret Thatcher was the most badass thing about late 70s early 80s England. OH MY LIFE IS SO TERRIBLE EVERYONE HATES ME BECAUSE I SPEND GOVERNMENT MONEY ON SHOES AND FOOD OH I AM GOING TO GO IN MY ENORMOUS BACKYARD AND PRETEND I’M POOR FOR FUN. Fucking terrible. We didn’t even get to see her head roll. That would’ve at least made it interesting.

      • I’m not sure that’s really what Sofia Coppola was going for, to be fair. This is pure speculation (until DARPA grants me the funding I need to complete my Sofia Coppola Mind Reader app), but I think that she was more trying to make the movie a character study about how Marie Antoinette was really just a teenager who was pretty much thrust into a narcissistic, navel-gazing system like Versailles. I’m not saying it’s poetry on celluloid, and is often pretty boring, but I can’t bring myself to really hate it.

        • Shoot, I meant to up vote you! Damn this iPad! (first world problems). So sorry, schmartmann! You’re entirely right. Marie Antoinette had no idea how to govern. Recent scholarship suggests that after the revolution began, she worked diligently for peace in her country. And the Reign of Terror was way fucking worse than two ignorant teenaged monarchs.

        • I get all those defenses. But a statement about how Marie Antoinette was “just a teenager” doesn’t require a 30-minute montage of frolicking in a meadow with lambs. Had she tried to make that statement without also buying into the self-indulgence she was deriding, I might respect it more.

  11. It seems to me that a lot of the tension in could have been based on a Maury episode. I expected Liam Neeson to go “You don’t know NELL” and snap his fingers in a Z formation.

  12. I have somehow gone through most of my life thinking that Nell and The Piano were the same movie. Now I just feel really really dumb.

  13. I realize that “breaking raw air” was a typo, but it’s ALSO my new favorite way to describe farting. (because I am 12)

  14. Weird, I remember this being a big deal with the kidz when it came out also. Oh, and Powder. God I hated Powder, but everyone in my elementary school (?!?) was all about it. I think it was a lack of options. We had the one big summer blockbuster every year- Batman, Jurassic Park, whatever- and in between was this nonsense, combined with how there was just never any parental censoring among any peer I knew. My favorite movie in third grade was Dangerous Minds, so, there you go.

    • My friend and I saw The Crow in theaters by ourselves when we were eleven. You know, the one with home invasion rape, rampant heroin use and multiple instances of human eyeball removal? When you’re eleven years old, every movie is already amazing but if it heavily features Stone Temple Pilots and boobies, then it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen. I went as Eric Draven for Halloween that year, using a black Detroit Pistons starter jacket as a duster. Those were the good old days.

  15. Let me point something out:

    Imbecile speaking gibberish, raised by mother in a remote shack + Jodie Foster= Nell

    Imbecile speaking gibberish, raised by mother in a remote shack + Adam Sandler = The Waterboy

    Hollywood, no good can come from this trope. Leave it be.

  16. Oh, this movie. When people kept saying they were excited to see Gabe dissect Nell I thought they meant that one low-budget CG animated movie that came out around when Avatar was released and everyone kept comparing the Avatar people to the people in that animated movie as a joke.

    So that’s what I thought we’d be discussing.

  17. I kind of liked The Wakness but I can see where Gabe would have a field day with it. I know Videogum mentioned the trailers a lot, but I can’t find a proper review of it (werttrew?). Anyways, if it hasn’t been reviewed, I’d like to nominate it, please.

  18. Needs more Truffaut

  19. So Jodie Foster was telling Liam Neeson not to fuck with the Khalesi in that scene, right?

  20. This review actually leaves out my favorite, most insane part of this movie, which is where Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson somehow figure out that — because Nell’s mother was raped — she believes that sex is like “a knife in the belly”, and therefore, she’s afraid of men. And then they decide that the only way for Nell to conquer this deep-seated fear would be for Liam Neeson to show her his penis.

    Yes. This is an actual plot point in “Nell”.

    And so Liam Neeson strips down in front of Nell as she skinny dips, and he sits there looking all sheepish and humiliated — which I’d imagine wasn’t too much of an acting challenge for Liam Neeson — and Nell swims up and looks at his penis and laughs, and then she swims away, and never has any problems with men again, because psychiatry.

    I actually kind of hoped that this movie would become the first in a series of movies, in which the Liam Neeson character travels from town to town in a custom van, healing people by letting them stare at his magnificent, non-threatening penis.

    • I completely forgot this. The fact that this scene exists is so much evidence that Nell was based on a play, because of course in a play they have to figure out how to show off a guy’s penis because SUBVERSIVE! Ugh.

      • Seriously. Why is every play trying so hard to subvert the mores of yore? I mean, in 2011 is there really anything left to subvert? We are kind of in freefall as a society and it’s pretty awesome! Spending the energy to write or watch a play so we can feel like we really socked it to Robert MacNamara or whatever just seems like a total waste of a perfectly fun freefall. “I thought the author’s use of the exposed penis exposed the hypocrisies in our patriarchal BARF.”

  21. As a teenage girl that made a special trip to see Nell in the theatre with my best friend (and German foreign national) I can say unequivocally that we also did not understand why we went to go see it… and left very angry at our wasted time.

  22. Movie Makers take note: If “The Social Network” had ended with the Fat Boy’s version of Baby you’re a rich man, it probably would have won the Best Picture, due to all the stutter-singing.

  23. Um, Daniel Faraday hasn’t aged AT ALL. Was this filmed in some kind of time loop scenario from the Island?

    I miss you, Daniel Faraday.* R.I.P. #neverforget.

    *Not stupid other world Faraday in which he dresses like Corey Feldman. Bleaugh. Bad Faraday, Bad. (And further proof that Jack was the very, very worst.)

    • For some reason I feel like this is the appropriate time to admit that for the first few episodes of LOST featuring Daniel Faraday, I really thought it was Dominic Monaghan in a wig.

  24. i dont know, i feel like there are too many of these that end with “this obviously isnt the worst movie of all time”. i would say gabe is letting himself of the hook but these are all still pretty bad. so maybe its the community’s responsibility to name the actual worst movies (the new world) as opposed to ones we just personally hate (legends of the fall) ooohhh i hate that one!

    • I’m pretty sure “August Rush” wins both those titles.

    • Oh, but I honestly believe Nell is among the worst.

      I hate Nell so, so much. Its sense of itself as saying something important about reality, combined with its total disregard for that reality, sauced by its ludicrous puree of awkward dialog like “I don’t want to have sexual intercourse with her” (ergh, the writer really, REALLY wanted to use the word “intercourse” because it’s a synonym for conversation and Nell has her own language and SHUT UP, WRITER) when anyone normal would just have said to his girlfriend, “What? Don’t give me that look. Hand me the binoculars. I have no class and this is what passes for deeply spiritual with me. C’mon, her boobs are out! You know you love me.” But there isn’t a single moment in this movie that doesn’t feel totally lifeless instead. “Hmm, should we play the awkward & lifeless card?”–this movie, every hand.

      Thanks for reminding me of all the details I’d blacked out, Gabe. Respectfully I must disagree with your conclusion (maybe you should watch it again) but kudos to you for actually making me feel what this movie gave me when I saw it: my “bad TV” stomach ache. (An actual queasiness of the gut/soul somehow induced by really bad TV and movies.)

  25. Minor correction, Gabe- The actor from this movie and Justified and Rescue Dawn and LOST and all that is JEREMY Davies, not Jonathan Davies.

  26. I don’t know, I personally found it really uplifting when Nell managed to fully integrate into society and went on to land that role as the controversial CG sidekick in those new Star Wars movies.

  27. I feel like it’s a good idea to be able to recognize what a gun is so you don’t try to grab one out of a policeman’s holster or ignore someone who’s trying to rob you. And Hershey bars are just tasty, so that’s a good thing to know about too.

  28. OK Soda? well, that’s a new one.

  29. Great stuff, as always…in other news, please please PLEASE….

  30. Can I recommend we do Quantum of Solace for the next round of movies? Really bad follow up to a pretty good James Bond reboot

  31. Are you Nell? From the movie Nell?

  32. I never saw Nell, but I distinctly remember Howard Stern doing an extended bit about Nell’s, um, language and it was very, very funny.

    • Okay, okay, I take full responsibility for my comment for not being at all funny or adding anything to the conversation or universe. I accept that -1!

      Here is a baby and a Hovawart dog for some reason. Peace.

  33. nell me something i dont know

  34. I would like to make this–my first post–a nomination for The Piano, starring Dame Anna Paquin. I remember having to sit through that movie on one of my first dates with a guy who turned out to be a pretty terrible boyfriend. In retrospect, I should have known it wouldn’t work out between us, because he liked the movie.

  35. But after watching Nell, you never need be bored again. Waiting in line at a Starbuck’s? Bust out a Nell and start examining the tumblers in wonder and gibberish.

  36. Caution: late comment not related to Nell but more broadly to the Hunt.

    I’ve been off work due to illness, so decided to watch a few movies. The first one I watched was Skyline.

    I know. Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB both contain sufficient warnings about this film. I should have known better, but I saw all the pretty blue lights and couldn’t resist.

    Skyline sucks ass and is hereby nominated for WMOAT (spoiler alert).

    1) It made me feel more ill than I already did
    2) Giant vacuum cleaner space ships
    3) But mainly because, like, the whole idea that aliens would travel really long distances to use human brains in their robots so they can get more human brains.

    What? Exactly.

    Good things about this movie?
    1) It had Turk from Scrubs
    2) It was only 94 minutes

    Curse you pretty blue lights for promising so much, and delivering so little.

  37. When I was in high school Nell was already so old it was being shown on TBS but my friend and I both thought it was hilarious. I had pretty much forgotten about that until I moved into my new house 6 months ago and unpacked a box that had been in storage when I lived in the apartment in which I lived after moving out of my mom’s house but before moving into my own grownup house. I found a bunch of old notes saved from high school, and my friend and I both used the phrase “Like a tay-ay in da win” several times in the notes, for no apparent reason.

  38. from the creators of “DER”

  39. OH MY GOD according to Netflix this is an “INTENSE” version of Truffaut’s “The Wild Child.” THIS PAINS ME

  40. You guys, I really want to nominate Knights, but I don’t think it’s even on DVD! I don’t know if it had a wide release but it does have Lance Henriksen and Kris Kristofferson in it. VHS party?

    http://www.amazon.com/Knights-VHS-Kathy-Long/dp/6302914124/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1308078621&sr=1-2

  41. I have to nominate this:


    Don’t hate me. That movie was just terrible. They should have cut out all of the dialogue and just put Philip Glass music in the background.

  42. I’ve never seen it, but the gist of the movie, as I understand it, is that she’s like a bird and she probably just assume fly away.

  43. I know this movie is about the mother of all dogs but please, DOGMA.

  44. “Maybe the state could make an argument for why she needs to be institutionalized, but surely two separate private citizens are not in charge of this?”

    Well, apparently Jodie Foster attacks have the same protocol as Gamera attacks: Whichever civilian yells the loudest about how the monster is our friend is put in charge. At least Liam Neeson wasn’t wearing short pants. I hope.

  45. My suggestion for an upcoming review: Where the Heart Is, wherein Natalie Portman gives birth in a Wal-Mart. It is always on TV, and I don’t know why. Who watches it on purpose?

    • ugh I accidentally saw that in the theater. someone (who’s identity I have since blacked out on, serves that a-hole right) lured me there because it was shot near where I live in Texas and someone i know’s back of the head was in it blahblahblah total abortion of a movie (or it SHOULD have been!). the acting and characters’ accents and trashy tendencies are very very bad. i support this nomination. thanks for reminding me that not having a real tv has it’s upside: i’m spared a repeat of country fried portman squeezing out a gut full o’ young ‘un in a stoooormy walmart. my bad – spoiler alert!

  46. I don’t care that it is a new release. YOU MUST REVIEW THE GREEN LANTERN!!! NAOWWWWW!!!! Worst movie of all time WINNER!

  47. ONCE AGAIN, I nominate Art School Confidential

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