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film review

Nim Chimpsky is the subject of the documentary "Project Nim."

From the director of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire comes another incredible but true documentary, the reverse-Tarzan story of a chimpanzee brought up on the Upper West Side of New York by behavioural scientists who can't behave.

Conservative satirist P.J. O'Rourke wouldn't dare make this up: In 1973, a beautiful but dim student activist, Stephanie LaFarge, accepts receipt of Nim Chimpsky, a clinging, days-old chimp, from her former behavioural psychology professor (and lover), Dr. Herbert Terrace, a middle-aged scholar with a ghastly comb-over and undeserved God complex.

Stephanie breastfeeds Nim, giving him the odd tug on a joint as well. Breakfast is granola and yoghurt. The LaFarge family is supposed to be teaching Nim sign language. Terrace believes the chimp will some day prove man isn't the only primate who can talk.

What - women breastfeeding and partying with talking monkeys?

"It was the seventies," Stephanie's daughter (Nim's stepsister?) tells director James Marsh in a recently filmed interview, as if that explains everything.

Unfortunately, Stephanie LaFarge lacks discipline, both as a mom and teacher. We see Nim growing into a spoiled, diaper-dependent chimp - a baby.

Afraid his pet project is going astray, Terrace whisks Nim away to a sprawling mansion backing into a leafy forest outside New York, hiring another attractive grad student, Laura-Ann Petitto, to work with the chimp. Petitto is a compelling educator. Nim quickly learns 125 sign symbols; communicating in chaotic, urgent pleas. One strung-out entreaty reads like the work of poet Robert Creeley:

"Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."

Before long, Terrace commences a sexual relationship with Petitto. Hurt and confused, the college student leaves Project Nim. Grieving, Nim tries to bite the face off her successor. Terrace shuts down the project and banishes Nim from New York. Soon the chimp is living a life out of Dickens - a hapless orphan shuttled from one harrowing scene to the next.

One moment, he's locked in a crowded cage with a score of roughneck apes. Later, our hero is a pin cushion in a medical research lab. In between, he's rescued by a Grateful Dead enthusiast, Bob Ingersoll, a committed slacker (and primate studies researcher) who loves to tumble through the woods with Nim; both of them laughing their fool heads off, high as a steeple on pot.

Terrace fired Nim because his project had turned into a mess. He also believed chimps couldn't truly reason - that they were expert beggars who learned to return signals for rewards. Filmmaker Marsh proves Terrace wrong, showing us Nim responding to lost friend Ingersoll, having not seen him for years.

"Hey Nim," Ingersoll sings, falling into a crouch outside the chimp's cage.

Nim claps his hands. Their agreed-upon sign language for "Let's play!" Watching Nim and Ingersoll goof around, we understand that chimpanzees are our closest relatives - distant cousins, as Darwin famously argued.

Project Nim also provides convincing evidence that Marsh is a product and proponent of another evolution - director Errol Morris's ( The Fog of War) move to incorporate dramatic recreations (actress Reagan Leonard plays young Stephanie LaFarge), juxtaposing them alongside formally staged interviews of the principals.

Some may argue that he is betraying the documentary form. But in art there are no rules, just stuff that works. And for the second film in a row, Marsh has created a movie we can't keep our eyes off.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Project Nim

  • Directed by James Marsh
  • Starring Nim, Dr. Herb Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Reagan Leonard and Bob Ingersoll
  • Classification: PG