Nell (1994) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • In a remote woodland cabin, a small town doctor discovers Nell - a beautiful young hermit woman with many secrets.

  • Nell is a girl who's been brought up in an isolated world. The only people she knew were her mother and twin sister. They lived together in a cottage in the forest. Nobody has ever met Nell. After her mother's death, she's discovered by the local doctor Jerry. He's fascinated by her, since she speaks a mangled language, developed by her sister and herself growing up, "twin speak" if you will. But Paula, a psychology student, wants her observed in a laboratory. The judge decides they get three months to observe her in the forest, after which he'll decide about Nell's future.

  • Nell is raised in the remote backwoods of North Carolina with her mother, never having met anyone else. When her mother finally dies, Nell must confront the outside world. Due to her isolation Nell never learned proper English, only a mangled form. Nice country doctor Jerome Lovell wants to help Nell adjust in her own protected surroundings, while psychology student Paula Olsen and her heartless boss Alexander Paley want to study this rare 'wild child' in their laboratory. But how long can Nell's world remain isolated?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Nell is a young woman whose upbringing has been in the sheltered, isolated woods with her mother whose speech is impaired (supposedly by srokes?) and her twin sister who has passed away, it is thought, some 12 or more years ago. As a result, Nell's own speech is a rather mangled mixture of "twin speech" and learning from her mother's own impaired manner of speaking. When her mother dies & is found by a teenage boy who it appears is delivering food, Nell is discovered by the local doctor. Dr. Jerome Lovell is intrigued by Nell & begins a journey of discovering how she has come to be this "feral" or wild child. He surmises from a newspaper clipping found in the cabin that Nell's mother was raped; from Nell's fear of going out in day time that she's been taught to stay out of sight & from her description of "e'al do'ers" (evildoers) that the reason for this is to avoid being raped as her mother was. Nell looks in the mirror and "spee's" (speaks) to her deceased twin sister, Mae (Mary?) and dreams of running through the forest & playing with her when they were young. Memories of Mae seem to be a great comfort to Nell. The female psychologist that Dr. Lovell had come out to observe Nell wants to study her in a laboratory setting, and her boss, a noted psychiatrist, pushes for this to happen, but Dr. Lovell objects & at court, a judge decides to give 3 months for observation of Nell in her own surroundings to see if she is competent to give "informed consent" to be studied. As Dr. Lovell, who moves into a tent a short distance from Nell's forest cabin, begins to interact with Nell...she subsequently comes to trust him and refers to him as her "gah-anj" (later Lovell determines this to mean "guardian angel") and calls him "Jay" in her way of saying Jerry. The psychologist, Paula Olsen, has also come out to observe, living in a lab-funded houseboat. She has sneaked in and put a video camera in Nell's cabin so she can watch her without the personal interaction. (it's unclear if this the sole intent or if it is just "easier" to do this way) Eventually, outsiders inadvertently learn of Nell & a journalist makes his way to Nell's cabin & frightens her with his flash photography, which Nell has never seen of course. Jerry runs him off but a story comes out in the newspaper & soon a helicopter arrives, frightening Nell to the point of collapse. In an effort to shield her from gratuitous exposure to ruthless media, Paula, who now sees Nell as a real person who is sweet & needs no state intervention and Jerry decide the only place she can be safe from the press is at the hospital where Paula's boss wants to make a lab rat out of her. The arrival at the scary hospital along with the traumatic fleeing from media helicopter shocks Nell into a catatonic state which both doctors know will send her directly to an institution when her 3-month evaluation comes up. Jerry impulsively breaks out of the hospital with Nell & holes up in a hotel where she continues to refuse to speak or interact with him. At one point, Nell is alone on the balcony outside the hotel room door looking down into the neglected pool and daydreams of Mae. This scene seems to imply that Nell is suicidal, but that is never made clear. Finally at the competency hearing, Jerry becomes frustrated at how Nell is being "railroaded", knowing how she really is, and Nell suddenly "comes alive" and seems to come to Jerry's defense by basically explaining herself, asking Jerry to "spee' fo' Nell". The things she says and emotions she expresses are very beautiful & the movie ends with Jerry & Paula driving with their young daughter to a gathering of some sort at Nell's cabin, where there are quite a few other people including the sheriff and his wife, who are fond of Nell throughout the film as well. Nell has a scene with the young daughter, teaching her the chant she and Mae used to say and telling her "You 'member dat"... I love this movie, even if it is a bit far-fetched. The scenery is breathtaking and the emotions are beautiful & ultimately, the "moral"... leave well enough alone... is appealing to me.

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