It's a look, from the other side of the species, at a concept often explored -- think "Planet of the Apes" and many other perspectives. What if an animal, such as a chimpanzee, could communicate with humans?
Chimps and other primates cannot speak, but they can learn sign language. So a chimp raised in a human household and taught to speak through signs might be able to make the jump from merely imitating words to manipulating them to express ideas.
It sounds like a theory worth testing, as illustrated in the documentary "Project Nim," directed By James Marsh, who won an Oscar for "Man on Wire."
But, as Jenny Lee, the daughter of the first human "mother" of the chimp, says with a self-conscious laugh and a shrug, "It was the '70s."
That means a certain lack of boundaries between professors and their students and a lack of scientific rigor in some interactions. The unsettling outcome is one very confused chimp, raised like a human baby, who learns to enjoy and ask for alcohol and marijuana but is ultimately both a wild animal and property to be bought and sold.
Although almost all of the people who played parts in the chimp's life are articulate and sympathetic characters as they tell their stories, it soon becomes clear that we are watching a slow-motion train wreck, with Nim as the main victim.
In 1973, a chimp named Carolyn, part of the breeding stock at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Okla., gives birth to a son. They have 10 days together before Carolyn, screaming in terror, is shot with a tranquilizer gun and the baby is snatched from her. He is named Nim Chimpsky, a clever play on the name of political activist and MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who maintained that animals will never acquire meaningful language.
Nim is handed to Stephanie LaFarge of Manhattan, matriarch of a large, chaotic household. LaFarge is studying with Dr. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University professor and behavioral psychologist who has devised the Nim experiment, and at one point was also his lover. In an interview, Terrace says, straight-faced, "A chimp could not have a better mother." LaFarge takes Nim into her Manhattan brownstone and treats him as a human baby, diapering him, dressing him in adorable little outfits, even breast-feeding him for several months.
What? It was the '70s!
Nim learns some signs, mostly related to things he wants: "drink," "eat," "hurry." But he also grows older, stronger -- and wilder.
No records are kept of Nim's progress with language. So Terrace hires a new assistant, Laura-Ann Petitto, to teach Nim and record his progress. LaFarge and Petitto clash, and finally Terrace moves Nim to a suburban mansion owned By Columbia, where he installs Petitto -- who is also, briefly, his lover -- and other companions for Nim.
Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan are hired as assistants, and they become a couple. Archive film shows them as young adults, sharing yogurt with Nim in a garden, although now the chimp is wearing a leash. Then, disaster: Nim severely bites another teacher. "You just can't count on having outstanding teachers all the time," Terrace says in a comment one can only hope was made in a slightly different context. Afraid of being sued or getting bad publicity, Terrace ends the project.
He tranquilizes Nim and returns him to the primate facility where he was born. Terrace says now that the facility "was surprisingly more primitive than I remembered."
As in, it's basically a prison full of chimps, animals Nim has not seen since he was 10 days old, except in the mirror.
At the primate facility, Nim's engaging personality is noted by an aide named Bob Ingersoll, a long-haired Grateful Dead fan who communicates with him. The two go out for countryside rambles and form what seems to be a lasting bond. Then the primate center encounters financial troubles, and Nim is among a group of chimps sold to a medical facility for experiments.
Needless to say, things get worse before they get better. A villain becomes an ally; a savior's efforts fall short.
Throughout, the chimp is consistently true to his nature. But humans continue to surprise with their capacity for selfless goodness as well as their unforgivable ignorance of the needs of Nim, who, due to his upbringing, can severely injure a person and then immediately ask forgiveness, anxiously signing "sorry."
> PROJECT NIM
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Joyce Butler
DIRECTOR: James Marsh
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary about a baby chimp raised as a human child.