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Chicka, chicka, chickabee. / T'ee an me an t'ee an me. / Ressa, ressa, ressa me, / Chicka, chicka, chickabee.—Nell, Nell
The movie opens with Jerome Lovell (Neeson), a doctor, joining Sheriff Todd Peterson as they come upon a cabin in the woods and discover the passing of the only resident there. The cabin is located alone, deep up in the woods of North Carolina. While looking around, Jerome comes upon Nell (Foster), who has had no experience with humans other than her mother and dead twin sister. Nell speaks her own hybridized language and while she competently handles household tasks in the real world she is also living in a fantasy. Since she is of age, the local medical center want to have her come in and study her believing her to be a real Wild Child. (Technically, since she wears clothes, cooks her food and lives in a house, she's not.)
A judge holds a hearing after Jerome spends some time observing Nell from afar. He decides to grant a three month continuance to further clarify whether Nell can live by herself in the cabin or has to go to a medical hospital. The center sends Paula Olsen (Richardson), a psychology student, as a representative to observe and study Nell while Jerome takes it upon himself to continue to observe and study her as well.
Gradually, Jerome begins to interact with Nell and Nell soon begins to interact with both Jerome and Paula. They eventually learn from Nell that she had a twin sister who died when she was young. When a newspaper reporter learns of, and comes upon Nell in her cabin, Jerome and Paula decide it is safest to take Nell to the medical hospital. This decision is forced when a helicopter representing a television crew comes upon the cabin. When she arrives at the medical center, things go bad for Nell.
The movie resolves in a court room scene where the argument of Nell belonging in the medical center or being able to live in her cabin comes to a head.
Tropes used include:
- Break the Cutie - Arguably happens to Nell between her sister, her mother, and the medical center scene.
- Character Tics - A heavy use by Nell, particularly lifting her arms over her head and using her arms to mimic physical gestures to her dead sister.
- Cloudcuckoolander - Nell
- Dead Little Sister - Really dead twin sister
- Deep South - Takes place in North Carolina but the movie is quick to utilize crude redneck stereotypes who express sexual mockery of and towards Nell.
- Do Not Go Gentle - Nell accepts that everybody dies and she will eventually die. Ties in with her court room speech
- Dumb Struck - Nell becomes mute after her visit to the medical center
- Eloquent in Her Native Tongue: Once you realize that Nell uses Biblical words and phrases in a heavy North Carolina accent, mingled with her mom's dysphasic traits and a secret language from her childhood, she becomes almost completely comprehensible.
- Estrogen Brigade Bait - When Dr. Lovell strips down and goes skinny dipping with Nell, which for some reason is supposed to help her get over her fear of men.
- In theory this is because to Nell, he's not a man, he's her guardian angel and thus exempt from the 'men are monsters' lesson her mother drummed into her head.
- Fan Disservice - Nell in the bar room when she exposes herself despite the mocking being verbally taunted at her.
- Fan Service - The scenes where Nell skips over the rocks and proceeds to dive into the lake.
- Friendship Moment - Happens several times between Dr. Lovell and Nell
- Heroic BSOD - Happens to Nell after she is taken to the medical center
- Hollywood Psych - Paula Olsen
- Home, Sweet Home - Nell and her cabin in the woods to the point of it being featured strongly in the final scene of the movie
- Imaginary Friend - Nell could appear to have one of these at first.
- Innocent Fanservice Girl: Nell wears clothes, but has no problem to take them off
- Jerkass - Billy Fisher in the bar scene
- Lampshade Hanging: Just a bit. "She's having a good time. She's discovered popcorn! Now she can go to the movies!"
- Mood Motif - Dr. Lovell plays a Patsy Cline song, which causes Nell to run back to her cabin. Later on when in the town, Nell hears country music coming from a bar leading to the above Fan Disservice scene. Mark Isham's score includes a hammered dulcimer, evoking traditional country life.
- Odd Friendship - Happens between Dr. Lovell and Nell. Also arguably occurs between Paula and Nell too.
- Papa Wolf - Dr. Lovell develops this attitude towards Nell, including physically shoving two people for just interacting with her (although one deserved it)
- Parental Abandonment - Nell's mother raised her and her sister by herself without a father figure. Paula's father abandoned the family when she was a child.
- Rape as Drama - About ten minutes into the picture, Dr. Lovell is given a news clipping revealing that Nell's mother was raped and that she attacked him when he was caught. We are to assume Nell and her sister were the products
- Rousing Speech - Nell does this in the court room scene.
- Talking to the Dead - Nell towards her dead sister.
- The Sheriff - Todd Peterson
- Undying Loyalty - Nell to Dr. Lovell and vice versa. Also partly done with Nell towards Paula.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension - Occurs between Dr. Lovell and Paula throughout the movie. Heavily hinted attraction from both sides to the point that Nell interprets an argument between them over her status as "parents arguing" and forces them to make up.