Researchers may have taught a chimp named Nim to communicate via sign language back in the mid-’70s, but it was humans who learned the most from the experiment, as detailed in director James Marsh’s “Project Nim.” A provocative and surprisingly emotional saga that ranges from wrenching to downright hilarious as it spans more than a quarter-century of unpredictable twists, “Nim” reaches far beyond mere scientific curiosity to become compelling human drama. Marsh’s impressive post-Oscar follow-up (acquired by HBO just before Sundance) has strong theatrical potential, raising big questions about ethics, parenting strategies and what separates man from animal.
Like Marsh’s “Man on Wire” and “Wisconsin Death Trip” before it, “Nim” resurrects and completely reinvents a familiar story as a way to get philosophical about what makes us tick as humans. In this case, the subject is Columbia U. professor Herb Terrace’s widely publicized attempts to impart language to primate prodigy Nim Chimpsky. For some reason, instead of conducting his experiment in a controlled laboratory environment, Terrace enlisted former student Stephanie LaFarge (with whom a past sexual history is clearly implied) to raise Nim as one of her own children, inadvertently launching an entirely different study in the process.
As director, Marsh doesn’t seem particularly interested in the outcome of Terrace’s investigation (which the professor ultimately declared a failure, suggesting that Nim may have outsmarted him), but he recognizes the potential of a broader and arguably more important question: What happens when a wild animal is raised among humans? Does the chimp come to believe he is a person, too? (That would certainly explain the sense of betrayal when Nim is eventually re-immersed with his own species.) Or is it the humans who can’t tell the difference, unfairly anthropomorphizing the poor primate the way dog owners like to pretend that pets are their children?
To its credit, “Project Nim” doesn’t ask or answer these questions outright. Instead, the director focuses on the moment-to-moment drama of Nim’s story, carefully selecting and juxtaposing soundbites, vintage photos and footage (both original and re-enacted, as the situation requires) that encourages discussion without telling audiences what to think. Marsh trusts less in the emotional power of his story, relying heavily on Dickon Hinchliffe’s score to guide our reactions throughout, especially when introducing new subjects or depicting Nim’s separation from one of his many surrogate mothers (often accompanied by a slow dolly shot in which the subject is literally edged offscreen).
One of the tragedies of Nim’s life is the staggering number of times he changes hands, with new parental figures taking over his care every few years. The film assumes an almost Dickensian quality as Nim is passed among eccentric custodians, beginning with ex-hippie LaFarge, whose parenting ideas included breastfeeding the young chimp and exposing him to such things as alcohol and marijuana. Her stories are as amusing as they are inappropriate, reminiscent of Nagisa Oshima’s surreal French farce, “Max, mon amour,” in which Charlotte Rampling forgoes her husband for a chimp.
After LaFarge came Laura Petitto (another of Terrace’s student conquests), followed by a series of others, all of whom agreed to participate in the film. Though Nim is clearly the film’s focus, the human subjects prove far more revealing, with each guardian espousing a radically different approach to handling the chimp. Taking a page from Errol Morris, Marsh interviews them dead-on, eliciting stunningly candid accounts of their shortcomings and failures.
Of course, the experiment could not continue forever, and as Nim aged from infancy to adolescence, he became a physical threat to his human companions. Though Nim’s story grows ever more depressing as it unfolds, Marsh handles these developments with genuine sensitivity. Whatever “Project Nim” says about 20th-century science (including a harrowing stretch in NYU’s medical research facility), there’s no denying how radically this particular test subject changed humans’ view of chimps — and ourselves, for that matter.