“Nell, an underdeveloped human being has been subjected to a struggle of becoming assimilated and to conformity to society’s views on how one should behave and act in public and in private”
This film features Jodie Foster as Nell, a young woman who lives the first thirty years of her life in a remote cabin in the isolated beauty of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains. Once she is discovered by the outer world, she is forced to conform to a civilized young woman. Her linguistics skills are very undeveloped; she is very underdeveloped emotionally, socially, morally, and intellectually. However, she has very well developed physical and motor skills because she has been forced to take care of herself. Nell’s underdevelopment begins in her prenatal period and sprouts out into a series of problems there. The isolated environment which she lives in and lack of intellectual stimulation is a significant factor in her underdevelopment as well.
She was underdeveloped in the very beginning, when her father’s sperm meets her mothers fertilized egg. The sheriff of the community had pulled up a newspaper article, which was linked, to Nell’s mother, which indicated she was raped. However, there was no concrete proof that Nell’s mother was raped, it is very likely that Nell was conceived without consensual sexual intercourse. However, later on in the movie Nell discusses why she does not go outside during the day because her mom told her about getting, “skewed in the belly”, meaning rape. There were no signs that Nell’s mother consumed any form of substances that could have damaged the fetus of Nell. Nell was born with an identical twin that had died at a very young age. Nell has persistent reoccurring flashbacks throughout the movie of her belated twin sister.
Nell’s physical development is average in comparison any other North American female at her age. She was actually in terrific condition in that she was not overweight, she was very healthy, she was not malnourished, and she possessed no bad habits such as eating excessively or smoking cigarettes. During the evening, Nell would bathe in the nude and her nude body was fully developed and possessed no visible deformities or lack of development in any areas. Nell has excellent motor skills, which was obtained in her childhood in which her mother taught she. During the scene where Nell is chopping wood, it displays her physical strength, endurance, and hand-eye co-ordination.
Nell has her own developed language, distinct from any other language. Her method of oral communication is considered to be undeveloped by most people because she has yet to become assimilated to our society’s primary language. She speaks English, however she has obtained a speech distortion from her mother. Her mother’s body was half paralyzed including her face, which was caused by a series of strokes. Hence, she could not speak clearly or properly and effectively pronounce and enunciate correctly and fluently. Some of the physiologists in this movie referred to her language as “twin speech”. Webster’s defines language as, “The use by human beings of voice sounds in organized combinations and patterns in order to express and communicate thoughts and feelings”. According to the previous definition, Nell spoke a fully developed language. However, due to the lack of intellectual stimulation in her home environment she has a limited environment, which has a significant impact on her intelligence. Most of the vocabulary she knows is words that are used to express her feelings such as “ta ta” which means fear. She would be considered in “stage three” of language development in that she uses different tones in her speech and she produces babbling sounds. Nell progresses throughout the duration of the movie through interactions with others including “J” and Dr. Olson. She learns how to pronounce some words and communicate at a low level with others beside herself.
Nell is very developed emotionally; she experiences many feelings from excitement, anger, to joy. In the beginning of the movie, she is first discovered in a corner crying by herself. She was experiencing sadness, pain, and confusion. When Dr. Lovell makes an attempt to touch and comfort her, Nell kicks and screams because she feels frightened. She understands affection to a certain level. She likes to touch people’s faces and give hugs, which is well proven in the lake with Dr. Lovell. When Dr. Lovell and Dr. Olson get into an argument, Nell becomes upset and makes them calm down and to look into each others eyes. However, she experiences no vice-like impulses such as to betray someone or to feel jealous.
When Nell was discovered, she was extremely underdeveloped socially if not developed at all. Nell was petrified of strangers such as when she encounters another human begin besides her mother for the first time, she screams and shuts the door on Dr. Lovell. She experiences “stranger anxiety” just like a baby. She is behind the development of adolescence as well because she is not even attracted to the opposite sex. She has never even encounter the images of the world such as a car, a gun, or a Hershey Bar. She has not been taught proper etiquette around others such as when she eats a meal; she chews with her mouth open. Dr. Lovell begins to use the “reward” program to make her “step out” of her “cage” and enter the real world. He rewards her popcorn for coming outside during the day so she would realize there are no “evil-doers”. Nell does not like arguments or confrontations. She forces Dr. Lovell and Dr. Olson to quit arguing and make up. She begins to progress and conform to society throughout Dr. Lovell’s treatment. When she enters the town, she begins to accept all the new things she sees such as busses and bright lights and loud music. She overcomes her fears of strangers, when she casually walks into the bar and confronts a few rude strangers.
Nell was never supplied with any intellectual stimulation as a child. Her intellectual abilities are underdeveloped. Although, she would likely fail an IQ test, she is very intelligent if examined closely. She can acquire and apply knowledge very easily. Through the short months Dr. Lovell interacted with her, Nell learnt a lot of new knowledge and applied it when communicating and when she entered society (the town). According to Jean Piaget’s stages of intellectual development, Nell would be in stage one, which is the sensory-motor period. She uses her muscles and senses to make things happen such as chopping wood or carving items. She was fascinated when she held a leaf up to the light and she could see the shadow of her hand through it. She can not understand why and how it is possible. She has trouble understanding the concept of a mirror. Her childhood as a “pioneer” or “hermit” without and electricity, running water, intellectual stimulation, or an intelligent parent has played a significant factor in Nell’s intelligence.
According to Lawrence Kohlberg, Nell moral development begins at stage three, and near the end of the movie in the courtroom scene she displays a stage six morality.
She will not go outside during the day because her mother told her not too. She is used to trying to please her mother and to avoid her disapproval; she bases her decision making on what her mother always wanted. During the courtroom scene, she begins to speak what she feels about her new life. She says, “since my mom died, I’ve been alone, afraid, everyone’s frightened everywhere, the sweet lord soothes our tears You don’t look into each other’s eyes and you are hungry for quietnessI have no greater sorrows than you” She says what she believes is right and what the truth is. She’s reconnecting people with their disowned aspects of their personalities.” It is Nell’s inability to communicate in words that allows her to, paradoxically, communicate with others in a richer, deeper way. She does not understand the laws and what is accepted in society such as when she bares her breasts at the bar.
There is something so essentially pure and authentic about Nell, a quality most people have lost. I know I have, and I like to choose characters from whom I can learn.”
Foster is a pleasure to watch, as she is totally immersed in her unique character. She has
succeeded in not only capturing a timid, recluse who is often overcome by fear, but also in speaking a complex, non-existent language and in creating the body language which authenticated her character. This movie was a good movie to help one understand developmental psychology. I was able to clarify the significance or each factor affecting human development through discussing Nell’s (under) development in each area. I learned the concepts and diverse information about the different stages of moral and intellectual development and how important language development is for one’s character. However, I would not recommend this movie to a feature psychology class because I believe there are better, more interesting, and more educational movies to watch than Nell. I would recommend showing “Forrest Gump” for the unit if developmental psychology. Forrest Gump was born with limited intelligence and, through the strength and encouragement of his mother, lives to experience the fullness of life. Forrest Gump is much more interesting than Nell, who was born with above average intelligence yet, because of the fears and limitations of her mother, lives the first thirty years of her life apart from the world and its challenges.