In November 1973, a two-week-old baby chimpanzee at a primate research center in Oklahoma is wrested screaming from his mother, who is knocked out by a tranquilizer dart, and transferred to the home of a female psychology researcher in a brownstone on New York's Upper West Side.
The ensuing research experiment is intended to show that chimpanzees, using sign language, can communicate with humans if nurtured like a human child. Because the experiment was intended to disprove some of linguist Noam Chomsky's theories about the exclusive inheritability of human language, the baby chimpanzee is dubbed "Nim Chimpsky."
This is the starting point for James Marsh's documentary "Project Nim," which follows the initially upbeat but increasingly sad, even Dickensian, travails of Nim as he is shuttled from one dysfunctional caregiver to the next.
The experiment was initiated by Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace (he's still there). Several of the psychology researchers, including Stephanie LaFarge, were also his graduate students and, apparently, lovers. LaFarge, married with children, and with only a rudimentary knowledge of sign language, made Nim a part of her household, which for her meant giving him puffs of marijuana and even breast-feeding him. "It was the '70s," says one of LaFarge's daughters during a filmed interview. (Most of the principals in Nim's story, which is derived from Elizabeth Hess's book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human," consented to be interviewed by Marsh.)
At first Nim is like an especially rambunctious child, biting, scampering, having his run of the place. His memory for people and places is extraordinary. He develops a vocabulary of 120 words. His favorite word is "play." But by age 5, Nim's animal nature comes to the fore – this development comes as something of a surprise to his touchy-feely caregivers – and Nim, alienated and anxious, is brought back to the primate research center in Oklahoma to live among his own species. From there he is sold to a medical research lab in upstate New York, where he is confined to a small, isolated cage, then to an even more isolating animal sanctuary in Texas.
"Project Nim" covers the 27 years of Nim's life – he died in 2000 – and utilizes footage, interviews, and archival stills from throughout that time. (Regrettably, if necessarily, Marsh also relies on reenactments.) For a film where so many people seem, in varying degrees, culpable, Marsh indulges in very little finger-pointing. He doesn't need to. The indignities are hiding in plain sight.
I would have preferred a greater emphasis on the scientific side – such as it was – of this experiment. Did any valuable nature versus nurture data come from it? We never really find out. Much is made of Nim's psychological states, how he conveyed his fears and desires to his handlers, but Marsh seems blinkered to a central fact: The big news here is not simply that Nim was traumatized, it's that Nim was signing that he was traumatized. By casting Nim as the abused foundling in a tragedy, the film loses sight of a parallel story of equal momentousness. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements, and disturbing images.)