***1/2 (out of four)
In the mid-‘70s, Columbia University professor Herb Terrace—which really sounds like the code name for a hippie commune—supervises an experiment to see if a young chimp could acquire language by being raised in a human family as if he were a little person (who, like a human baby, also looks cute in tiny sweaters). Over time various researchers grow close to Nim, but he grows into a dangerous animal, not just the affectionate little plaything who developed a fondness for hugs. All together now: Awwwwww.
The buzz: Earlier this year the documentary “The Elephant in the Living Room” failed to really examine why people strive to connect with wild animals and how much those animals are capable of becoming safe, non-violent pets. As interesting as that is, the doc “Project Nim” (by “Man on Wire” director James Marsh) poses even more fascinating questions: Can we know what chimps are thinking? What would we do with that information if we could?
The verdict: This is how you tell a story in a documentary. Absolutely packed with illustrative footage (videos and photos), “Project Nim” unfolds without trying to prove that the experiment was or wasn’t a success, or that it was or wasn’t a good idea in the first place. The film leaves that decision up to us as we process incredible contradictions: Nim can apologize and kiss away the tears of his human “siblings,” but he also learns to manipulate. (His love of cats also leads to him rubbing them against his penis, which is not what we do with cats, Nim.) He enjoys sweeping and doing dishes, yet he’s capable of spontaneous, potentially deadly attacks. It would be nice to know what was done with the study and what more has been done, if anything. Yet Nim continually changes between a sometimes-spoiled only child and a domesticated killer waiting to strike. The “nature vs. nurture” debate rarely explores each side so literally and so closely.
Did you know? Nim enjoyed drinking alcohol and smoking weed, and numerous people in “Project Nim” have no qualms telling stories about indulging with the chimp. A lesson to “Hangover II” director Todd Phillips, who’s probably wondering why he still got in trouble for allegedly getting a monkey hooked on cigarettes: The more addictive the substance, the more you should keep it away from animals. Maybe something to keep in mind for people too, I guess.