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The Independent Critic

James Marsh
93 Mins.
Roadside Attractions


 "Project Nim" Review 
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From the Academy Award-winning team behind the remarkable Man on Wire, Project Nim is the nearly as remarkable story behind Nim.

No, not the Jodie Foster movie.

In the 1970's, a chimpanzee named Nim became the subject of a landmark experiment that aimed to show that an ape could learn a language if raised like a human child. The experiment that followed, at least if it truly unfolded as presented here, is one that simultaneously offered moments of exhilaration, hilarity, heartbreak and outright cruelty with most of the heart and humor coming from Nim and most of the heartbreak and cruelty coming courtesy of Nim's human counterparts.

In many ways, Nim's life throughout the grand experiment did manifest in the chimp having extraordinarily child-like qualities. Started by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace, Project Nim resulted in the young and rambunctious chimp being housed by Terrace in the home of Stephanie LaFarge, a former lover, in the initial phases of the project. While LaFarge certainly had the nurturing side, even breastfeeding Nim, she lacked the discipline to actually enforce the teaching of language. Nim would eventually be cared for by Terrace's current lover, Laura-Ann Pettito, but when that relationship soured Nim went through a series of graduate researchers (lucky chimp - they were all female and quite attractive!). Nim's diet was quite luxurious and he was afforded the opportunity to participate in everyday activities both at home and in vehicles. At his peak, Nim had a vocabulary of right around 125 words/expressions that could be communicated through sign language.

Then, the project was abruptly stopped by Terrace.

In parental lingo, Nim became an abandoned child and reacted as an abandoned child would react by becoming an angry, disruptive and even, at least to a certain degree, potentially dangerous chimp that was left in the care of frighteningly abusive and neglectful care centers whose treatment of Nim was astoundingly cruel and heartbreaking.

What makes Project Nim such a powerful documentary is that Marsh weaves together remarkable archival footage, honest and revealing interviews and convincing reenactments that all work together to create an intellectually satisfying and emotionally resonant film. He's also gotten the cooperation of virtually everyone involved with the actual project, including extended time spent with Terrace. To watch these interviews is heartbreaking in themselves as virtually everyone involved with the project realizes both their research failures and their moral failures in abandoning Nim.

Eventually, Nim would live out a rather peaceful existence but in many ways Project Nim is as much about Nim's human counterparts here and their own failures along the way. With only a couple of exceptions, the individuals here are almost devastatingly narcissistic and self-interested. To think that they were attempting to humanize a chimpanzee is almost laughable given their own fundamental lack of humanity. This is especially true of Terrace himself, who much of the time here comes off as an arrogant prick.

Project Nim received a limited arthouse release courtesy of Roadside Attractions and is headed to home video just in time for awards season to hit. While Project Nim is occasionally a bit manipulative in its style of presentation and lacks the awe that practically defined Man on Wire, it's still easily one of 2011's best documentaries and it would be surprising to not see the film mentioned throughout awards season.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic   

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