Rating: R, nudity. Running time: 1:52.
JODIE FOSTER gives a mesmerizing performance as Nell, a compelling character in search of a coherent movie. Indeed, the acting from all concerned in this portrait of a late 20th-century "wild child" is so good that it isn't until near the end that we realize the film makers didn't bother to find a story to tell or a believable setting to tell it in.
Nell grows up alone with her hermit mother in a theoretically remote cabin in the Smoky Mountains. The cabin overlooks a cove of a large, clearly man-made, navigable lake (you can get there in a houseboat) within easy driving distance of Charlotte, N.C., and in reality there would be water-skiers zipping by day and night.
After Nell's mother dies and leaves Nell alone at the cabin, able to communicate only in a private language, a local doctor (Liam Neeson) and an academic (Natasha Richardson) go separately to the cove to save Nell from herself.
A variety of other people meddle in Nell's life in a variety of melodramatic ways. They include some drooling young "Deliverance" types last seen in the infield of the Indianapolis 500; a big-time child psychiatrist (Richard Libertini) whose position on the matter is unintelligible but, we gather, hostile to Nell's best interests; a nosy reporter-photographer from a Charlotte paper who doesn't know that flashbulbs in dark rooms startle people, and the inevitable TV crew in a deafening helicopter. …