It was good to see a movie like Nim’s Island. It is a rare film that is artistically ambitious enough to attempt to tell the story of a woman experiencing a complete psychotic break with reality. Subversively, the filmmakers chose to couch this important and sometimes frightening subject matter in the form of a seemingly mediocre children’s movie.
They cast naif-du-jour Abigail Breslin as Nim Rusoe, a young girl living with her father on an island named, well, Nim’s Island. Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler) is a scientist, seeking undiscovered microscopic life in the surrounding ocean. But, truly, both of these characters are merely aspects of agoraphobic writer Alexandra Rover’s (Jodie Foster) imploding personality: Nim her imaginative, strong-willed childhood and Jack her fading sanity.
After all, we are dealing with a writer whose main character manifests himself to her, in the flesh, in her shut-in apartment, mocking her psychological inability to leave. The Indiana Jones-knockoff hero of her novels is named Alex Rover, an unsubtle bit of symbolism on the filmmaker’s part, though Gerard Butler playing both Alex Rover and Jack Rusoe is a clever bit of dream logic.
As Alexandra falls apart, she imagines Jack has left Nim alone on her narcissistically named island to seek invisible creatures in the sea. In order to aid Nim, with whom she has been in contact, Alexandra finds herself on a journey to the island (allegorically, seeking to regress).
Her last bits of sanity grasp for reality through numerous and gratuitous mentions of a wide variety of everyday products, in what would be nothing more than crass commercialism if not for the deeper subtext.
Nim is a capable child, with the ability to commune with the unrealistically precocious local island animals, in a parody of numerous unimaginative movies involving too-smart animals. Much of the film’s time is spent watching her, unremarkably acted by Breslin, climb volcanoes and care for herself, both equally difficult in the mind of Alexandra. Hence, her downward spiral centers on Nim.
Jarringly, we are presented a subplot about developers inexplicably arriving on the island to make it a tropical resort. Through this contrivance, we see in the childhood-surrogate Nim the beginnings of Rover’s agoraphobia. Nim’s Home Alone-esque plotting against the onslaught of tourists serves nothing except to remind us of the devastating effect of such irrational fear.
If this were simply a badly-done kid’s movie, I would be embarrassed for the usually impressive Jodie Foster. Her flailings and attempts at physical comedy would be to poor effect. But as a tragic character in this psychological drama, every pratfall, every clunky line yelled at the imaginary Alex Rover, is loaded with pathos.
Throughout the film, every actor is forced to speak aloud to themselves, as much of the time, they are presumably alone, and much of their dialogue is nothing more than a recounting of information we already know. But within the context, it seems a reasonable choice.
If you have an interest in psychology and pain, Nim’s Island, may be a good choice. However, if you are seeking a family-friendly movie that does not condescend and manages to tell an interesting story for all ages, I would suggest looking elsewhere.