In the glossary of movie terms that concludes noted thumbsman Roger Ebert's compendium of film reviews, Movie Home Companion, he defines "noble savage syndrome" as that class of story line wherein a character "discovers the true meaning of life and sees through the sham of modern civilization" courtesy of exposure to a simpler, more innocent being -- the noble savage -- who is invariably blessed with surprising reservoirs of wisdom and sensitivity. In Nell that discovery is made by two people, a soul-searching doctor played by Liam Neeson and a reserved psychologist played by Neeson's real-life wife, Natasha Richardson. And as the noble savage, Jodie Foster's Nell is, according to formula, wiser and more sensitive than both of them put together.
Until Neeson's Dr. Lovell finds the 29-year-old womanchild crouched in the rafters of her recently deceased mother's cabin in the Smoky Mountains, no one else knows of Nell's existence. Mom was a Bible-reading, overprotective recluse who instilled in Nell a paralyzing fear of setting foot outdoors during daylight hours, presumably to hide her blossoming womanhood from potential "evildoers."
This is one of those movies in which the audience knows every story development way before the characters on-screen figure them out. Lovell approaches the cowering Nell and is stunned when she freaks out and attacks him. What did he expect her to do, tell him how much she enjoyed Darkman? If you are honestly surprised by her reaction and derive big kicks from watching little Jodie boot big old Liam around, then you've come to the right movie. If, on the other hand, you find her reaction to his intrusion obvious and logical and wonder why a doctor wouldn't have seen it coming, don't worry. It's still early enough to leave your seat and sneak into one of the other films playing at the multiplex.
Lovell's initial response to Nell's behavior is, "She doesn't need a social worker. She needs a padded cell." He consults a psychologist -- Richardson's Paula Olsen -- who wants to run some tests on Nell and bring her in to a clinic (Boo! Hiss!) for observation. As Lovell learns more about Nell (largely by spying on her), he is more and more drawn to the mysterious creature. A nonconformist who gave up a successful practice in the big city for a residency in a small rural town, Lovell sees a lot of himself in this woman who lives on her own, unfettered by others' rules. He changes his tune from wanting to commit her to wanting to protect her. "You've got the right idea, Nell," he tells her. "You live with people, you got problems." The thing is, right now Nell's biggest problem is that he brought Olsen into the picture. The shrink is convinced the best thing for Nell is to acclimate her to society.
Subtlety is not this movie's strong suit. The first time Olsen and Lovell meet, the psychologist gives the doctor a once-over glance that screams "Romance coming!" Nell realizes they're meant for each other before they do. She even goes so far as to play matchmaker. For such supposedly bright people, it sure takes these two medical pros a long time to come to a conclusion about the simplest things. For example, they need weeks to crack the private language Nell speaks, which turns out to be -- I'm not making this up -- really garbled English.
Lovell eventually grudgingly accedes to Olsen's wishes, gradually drawing Nell out of her familiar environment and introducing her to the real world, where she has an encounter with a bunch of Deliverance-like yahoos in a silly excuse for a redneck bar. The scene is eerily reminiscent of another of Foster's misunderstood-and-underestimated-woman roles in The Accused. As bloodthirsty media types get wind of Nell's existence and encroach upon her world, Lovell and Olsen take her to Olsen's clinic. But (surprise!) Nell reacts badly to confinement. With guardians like these who needs enemies? As fate and the dictates of Hollywood storytelling would have it, the doctor and the psychologist learn their lesson just in time for the big court case to determine Nell's fitness to care for herself.
Truffaut did the noble savage shtick better in The Wild Child; ditto Werner Herzog in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Variations on the theme have informed every narrative from Frankenstein to Tarzan's New York Adventure. But as the clinic chief of staff who wants to bring Nell in for observation puts it, "Everybody who cares for somebody has an ulterior motive, even Mother Teresa." Nell's ulterior motive is to showcase Foster's talent. Ultimately there is only one good reason to see the film: to catch Jodie Foster doing Rain Woman.