Dr. Herbert S. Terrace picked Stephanie LaFarge to be his chimpanzee's mother because she was full of warmth and empathy. Thrilled to be making scientific history and burning with the 1970s spirit of adventure, she took in the two-week-old baby chimp, Nim, and raised him like one of her seven children-with very little discipline and the occasional dose of marijuana.
Project Nim (rated PG-13 for references to sex, drugs, and some disturbing images) tells the true story of how Nim grew up like a human child-the subject of an experiment to prove that chimps can learn language just like humans-only to be abandoned by his human family when his true nature emerges. It shows that the noblest pursuit of science, wrongly directed, can end up being cruel.
Director James Marsh vivifies history with the same impressionistic but piercing recreations that characterized his award-winning documentary, Man on Wire. The film is by turns funny and sad as the camera uncannily reveals the character of the interviewees. Besides examining the still-roiling nature vs. nurture question, the film explores the nature of science itself: How dispassionate can it be? When we learn that Terrace has been romantically involved with one of the women engaged in the experiment, the professor scoffs at the idea that his personal entanglements affect the experiment. But science and values are hopelessly entangled here. The kids who grew up with an ape for a baby brother, the young students who taught Nim sign language, and the string of young women who mothered him all end up confused yet deeply moved. The counterpart to the hypothesis that chimps are almost human is that humans are not much more than chimps. This is the bias that the experiment's participants seem to hold, until they realize that their hubris has created havoc not only in the life of a defenseless animal, but in their own as well.