Out there in the forest primeval of moviedom, the "wild child" has long lurked, rustling around in search of edible tree bark and good box office. First Tarzan swung through the underbrush. Then Francois Truffaut discovered uncivilized, unspoiled Homo sapiens in 1969's L'Enfant Sauvage. Werner Herzog rounded him up again five years later in The Mystery of Kasper Hauser, and some say he makes a comeback every time Sylvester Stallone opens his mouth.

Now this persistent sociological icon takes on the feminine form in Nell. Directed by Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Thunderheart), the picture is a blunt new-age fantasy in which untamed, untainted Jodie Foster goes skinny-dipping in the moonlit hills of North Carolina, outwits big-city psychologists in a primitive language that only she speaks, and deposits enough sheer goodness on the planet to make Forrest Gump seem like a prison guard by comparison.

Reared by her mother in a remote backwoods cabin, Nell is supposed to be the ultimate Natural Woman. She's unencumbered by English because Mom was long ago disabled by a stroke. She's unbothered by conventional gender roles since she's never seen another human being, let alone Oprah. Her heart has not even been poisoned by algebra. When her mother dies, Nell is discovered hanging from the rafters like a bat, and from there the predictable battle royal ensues.

While cinematographer Dante Spinotti examines Foster's dewy blue eyes from every distance and angle, sensitive small-town doctor Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson) strives to leave Nell alone in paradise, and psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson) seeks to drag her down to the lab for some tests.

Right. Absolutely. Before you can say "Hard Copy is coming in with a fleet of helicopters," good Dr. Jerry and good Dr. Paula have united in their selfless affection for Nell, while the wild child, spouting her stream of endearing babble, helps them rediscover their own true souls, the ones corrupted by civilization so long ago.

"Me Jerry, you Nell," poor Neeson must say at one point. No kidding.
Co-writers William Nicholson and Mark Handley (working from Handley's play Idioglossia) and director Apted lay this neohippie mysticism on so thick that halfway home I began hoping Nell would go completely native and tear her new pals apart with a moose antler.

No such luck. That would have prevented Apted from cross-cutting, ever so meaningfully, between the misty beauties of the backwoods and the nosy social scientists' evil fax machine, between the sleek, soulless skyscrapers of Charlotte and the image of Nell dancing nimbly over the pond stones, arms waving as gracefully as anything you've seen on Bravo. However, this 29-year-old wild child comes bereft of any sex drive. She's got her chances with the doc, but this chaste (nay, uptight) vision of life in the woods casts its heroine as a contented virgin.

Must be more romantic that way: Hillbilly nun remains unsullied to the end.
This is the first film Foster has produced, and it's difficult not to see it as a single-minded vanity project. The agonized gazes, otherworldly shrieks and confounding gibberish that make up her gaudy performance appear to have but one purpose: They are Nell's solitary mating call, delivered as if through a bullhorn, to a golden boy named Oscar. Only time will tell if the Hollywood voters go as wild as the woman herself.


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