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.

— Peter Canavese

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


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

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 6,325 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 2,122 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,005 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,455 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 11 comments | 1,389 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More