NELL- * * * - Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Richard Libertini; rated PG-13 (violence, nudity, profanity, vulgarity); OPENS SUNDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY, at the Century 9 Theaters, Cinemark Sandy Movies 9, Cineplex Odeon Holladay Center, Midvalley and Trolley Corners Cinemas.

The story of a "wild child" is not unfamiliar - we've had films in the past about youngsters lost in the wilderness and raised by wolves ("The Jungle Book") or who have grown up fending for themselves ("The Wild Child"), and the relationships they develop with those who try to "civilize" them.But co-producer and star Jodie Foster brings a certain amount of freshness to this tale with her remarkable performance in "Nell," which will most certainly win her an Academy Award nomination.

Foster plays the title character, a young woman who has been kept hidden from the world by her wary mother, a frightened older woman who never left her shack in the backwoods of North Carolina.

When her mother dies, Nell's space is invaded as she is discovered, explored and, ultimately, exploited. But the rest of the film is never quite able to bring itself up to Foster's luminous interpretation of this character, despite worthy performances by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson as the doctors who try - in different ways - to bring Nell into the modern world.

Director Michael Apted would seem the right choice for this project, with "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist" under his belt. But he's a rather grounded, rooted filmmaker, and the movie cries out for someone with a more ethereal vision, such as Peter Weir ("Witness," "Fearless").

In Apted's hands, the screenplay, by William Nicholson ("Shadowlands"), seems by-the-numbers, and becomes even more labored and obvious as it goes along.

Some scenes between Nell and the doctor who discovers her (Neeson) approach that poetic quality, as he watches her from afar and observes her actions, attempting to understand her - and the mysterious language she speaks - before he invades her world. (There is also some gorgeous cinematography by Dante Spinotti, who shot "Last of the Mohicans.")

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And there are some nice supporting performances from Richard Libertini, as Richardson's boss, who wants to exploit Nell, and especially from Nick Searcy and Robin Mullins, as a sweet-natured sheriff and his troubled wife.

But there are also moments that seem merely contrived and crass, at odds with the film's tone, as when Nell enters a bar during her first city experience. Yes, the world is a big, mean place for which Nell is obviously unprepared - but there must be a more compelling way of conveying this to the audience.

Still, for all its faults, Foster's performance is one of this year's movie miracles, and she alone is worth the ticket price.

"Nell" is rated PG-13, though it contains considerable nudity (but no sexual content), as well as some violence and profanity.

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