Movies

Review: 'Project Nim'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

With his documentary "Project Nim," James Marsh never comes right out with any judgments, but the story he tells inescapably provokes consideration of the human animal's primal nature.

Marsh does so in what amounts to a biopic of a chimpanzee born in 1973: Nim Chimpsky. Beginning at the age of 2 weeks, Nim was raised within a human family: graduate student Stephanie LaFarge, her reluctant husband and their three children. The notion was to treat Nim as a human child in every way to test the limits of primate development, particularly of language. But as Marsh's film recounts, the scientific method applied was sketchy at best, and the human players showed a Frankensteinian lack of forethought to the consequences of their tinkering with nature.

"Project Nim" is populated by a fascinating cast of conflicting characters, many of whom go on the record in new interviews. The project's initiator and overseer, Herb Terrace, a Columbia University professor, seems to have been distracted by the inextricable forces of his ego and libido. LaFarge and Terrace's sexual ties were further complicated by the Oedipal relationship between Nim and LaFarge (the latter both breast-feeding Nim and responding to his masculine animal magnetism), and the eventual intrusion of pretty, young lab assistant Laura-Ann Pettito, whom Terrace put in place for questionable reasons.

As expected, Nim made progress with American Sign Language, but how, how much, and to what significance remain points of contention. Arguably more useful lessons emerge from the ever-arching, vertiginous learning curve of the human researchers, who proved sorely unprepared for Nim's full growth through a rocky adolescence into unpredictably violent adulthood. With new crises come changes of scenery for Nim, each move further destabilizing the animal's mental state.

The irony is thick. Mistaking Nim for a human was part of the project's folly, but disregarding his feelings was an equally damaging error (though one champion of Nim's animal rights eventually emerges).

Nim's behavior invariably makes the most sense; it's his keepers who typically come off as kooky and lacking in self-awareness when jockeying for control and dominance with maneuvers that fall just short of flinging poop. LaFarge uses psychological terminology (sans objectivity) to claim that Pettito "wanted that mother role" and confesses, "I realized I was starting to lose my role."

Pettito moons of Terrace, "He had power!" and, therefore, attractiveness. Elsewhere, a researcher says of a split with Nim, "It was like breaking up with a bad boyfriend." The line between so-called "human" and "animal" nearly blurs out of sight.

Marsh -- who also directed the Oscar-winning doc "Man on Wire" -- based his film on Elizabeth Hess' book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," and he effectively draws on a thorough visual record (supplemented with disquietingly slick recreations). Marsh's sly, delicate touch nicely fits the material, which, while informative, raises more questions than it answers.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images. 1 hour, 40 minutes.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.

Comments

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Rose International Market reopening soon in Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 11 comments | 5,455 views

Eyes and the End of Life: Why Spend Time With the Dying?
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 1,909 views

The HSR Decision
By Steve Levy | 8 comments | 1,230 views

We need a new garage downtown Palo Alto -- forget about being politically correct
By Diana Diamond | 6 comments | 1,091 views

Know Before You Buy: Understanding Senior Living Facility Agreements
By Max Greenberg | 0 comments | 566 views

 

Short story writers wanted!

The 33rd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 29. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

Contest Details