“Project Nim” Review
Project Nim, a mesmerizing new documentary by James Marsh, is like Jungle Book in reverse. Back in the 70s, Herb Terrace, a professor at Columbia University thought it might be interesting to see what might happen to a chimpanzee raised by humans and taught sign language. So, he asks Stephanie, his former student and lover, to open her brownstone on the upper west side to a two-week old chimp – Nim. Stephanie complies a bit too eagerly: She breast feeds little Nim and encourages him to “explore her body” (she had recently completed a thesis on Oedipus complex). From there, the experiment becomes even less professional. After Nim outgrows Manhattan, he’s brought to Riverdale, where he is cared for by a string of very well-intended, very young girls who are as clueless about chimpanzees as they are about Professor Terrace’s real motives in hiring them (Hint – Chimps do it, too.) In the ensuing years, Nim charms, cuddles, and occasionally mauls these girls. And when Nim turns five and outgrows his diapers, Terrace decides it’s time to return Nim to the colony where he came from.
All of the characters are so archetypal that they border on cartoonish. There’s an evil scientist who looks like John C. Reily with a Hitler mustache, a chimp who loves to love, an Earth Mother with less than maternal instincts, and a hippie with shaggy, blonde hair who befriends Nim after he’s been abandoned. Its surprising Pixar didn’t beat Marsh to the chase. You forget you’re watching a documentary, partly because of story’s sheer entertainment value and partly because of the movie’s brilliant editing. To say that Marsh interviewed each of his subjects would be a misnomer. He films them talking-head style – just like any History Channel documentary – but they don’t sound like interviews: There’s no trace of an interviewer and everyone is so shockingly open that it feels as if they’re speaking to the camera voluntarily, no prodding needed. They become narrators, rather than subjects.
Even Terrace calls his experiment a failure, but not for the obvious reasons. While Nim developed a large vocabulary, he never learned to combine the words into grammatical sentences – meaning that he never spoke with humans as Terrace hoped he would. But the film proves that Nim communicated with all of his human companions. He got angry, forgave, and manipulated them. He attended their parties, smoked their weed, and even kissed away their tears. Nim is a tender, misunderstood protagonist certain to resonate with any audience, as long as they’re human.
Project Nim is showing in select theaters nation-wide and will air on HBO later this year
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