Project Nim (2012)

Directed by James Marsh

I have a theory based on extensive research on the subject: everything is cute and adorable when it is a small baby. Okay, you’re probably right, we can move that past just a theory and make it a fact. I mean just look at the photo above and tell me how cute that little chimpanzee is. No, don’t, because I already know and that picture alone could easily sell about a dozen baby chimps as pets if I had that many people read this post. But at the same time, having a chimp as a pet is so clearly a bad idea for anyone with half a brain cell, and even worse an idea for anyone with less. And yet, there is Nim, the young chimpanzee pictured above. In the 70s this little guy was chosen for an experiment wherein he would be raised up as though a human. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out the way everyone had hoped.

For those of you who care to notice, this is my first post in some time and that has a lot to do with, well I’m not quite sure. I just haven’t had the urge to watch many movies lately. In fact, this is the first film this month I have seen and the first in probably two and a half weeks, but I figured it was about time I got back on board the train and get this film back to Netflix since I had had it for over a month. It was an intriguing pick to begin with, coming from the director of the fantastic documentary Man on Wire, which played like a super tense thriller with immense beauty and serenity at the same time. But this one always felt like it would have a grimmer outlook than his previous film, as animal rights issues always seem to play heavily on emotion and are always hard to swallow.

One thing that I immediately noticed was how Marsh’s style was so distinctive. From the very first shot I was taken back to my viewing experience with Man on Wire, which isn’t so much a good or a bad thing so much as it is just a thing. Another thing would be just how amazed I was at how botched this “project” was, and I mean that in the sense of the actual project, not the film. Herb Terrace, a professor at New York University had a great idea: raise a chimp up from infancy as a human and teach him sign language as a means of communicating. On paper this is a great idea for a controlled experiment, and one with far reaching ambition and effect given the desired outcome. There was one variable, however, which was not accounted for: the humans.

The problem with “Project Nim” was that there were humans involved with human attributes making human decisions and acting like humans. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner towards my own species, but it is the truth. The “mother”, Stephanie LeFarge, may be off her rocker. Her hippie family was not the right fit to be Nim’s family as they showed no responsibility for actually raising him like a human. They spoiled him and laughed at his wildness while at the same time crippling the experiment. But Herb Terrace wasn’t much better. Supposedly the leader of this experiment, he seemed so hands off and when he did get involved it was to have sexual relationships with the mother figures for the chimp, which only caused alienation for Nim when the relationships ended and so too did the working relationship.

James Marsh does this story justice and while there was a lot wrong with the experiment, there were also some people involved with it who seemed like they actually cared about what was happening. Obviously Bob Ingersoll is the one who stands out the most, which brings the next subject tackled here, animal rights. I don’t think I want to try and make any statements or conclusions about the matter here, and I don’t think James Marsh really did either, which is fine. He presents the material with just enough of an edge to be entertaining and just enough restraint to let the viewer draw their own conclusions. Project Nim is a film that proves one thing for me, that James March is good at delivery a good film when he has a good story to tell with it. It is a solid film, nothing more, nothing less.

*** – Good

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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