For opening night of Sundance, there were only a few selections. I chose the one with a monkey. How could you go wrong with a monkey? Project Nim turned out to be an expose on the most scientifically unsound experiment of the ‘70s.
Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia had the idea that you could raise a chimpanzee in a human environment and teach it to talk. Seems reasonable. Now we know chimps can sign, but this was 1973. Everything about Herbs’s [the film refers to everyone by first name] experiment was designed to fail, and he was completely corrupt.
First they rip little Nim from his mommy’s cradle, as they had done with SIX of her previous babies. So it’s already flawed. That’s not a natural adoption. They’re stealing a baby and sneaking him into another home.
The first “mother” to Nim was Stephanie LaForge. She didn’t discipline him at all, let Nim run around the house and mess up her husband’s stuff. She let Nim fondle her and even breastfed him! There’s an archival photo of it, but it’s over her sweater. She refused to record data. She just wanted a baby monkey. Also, she and Herb did it together before she married Wer LaForge.
So Terrace hires Laura to be Nim’s teacher. At least in school, he can have a positive influence. Nim basically gets caught in a custody battle between Laura and Stephanie. Laura and Herb take Nim away from Stephanie and move him to a big estate, with such an open space that it’s basically like the wild. Herb hooks up with Laura too.
Basically the only positive thing about Herb is that he took good home movies, so we have footage of everything. Director James Marsh makes this compelling history extra dramatic, not just incorporating archival footage and present day interviews. He also stages tasteful re-enactments of Nim’s more violent reactions, usually from the outside of a window or doorway so you see the aftermath. Also his silent interstitial shots of the interviewees staring into the camera as he dollies away were powerful.
Project Nim is ultimately a tragic story. The scientists screwed Nim up so bad he wasn’t any good back in the chimp habitat, let alone the wild. There are plenty of hard to watch scenes including some horrific medical footage, but mainly just the inevitable of this is a wild animal. He’ll learn to ask for a bathroo break, but then he’ll rip your face off. I was worried for the cat they let him play with. The humans made a decision, but a domestic cat doesn’t know how dangerous a chimpanzee is.
It ends on a reasonably happy note. If you’re thinking the worst, it’s not that bad. Ultimately they do the best they can for this victim they screwed with. What you’re left with is not “Aww, look at the monkey!” but rather “God damn, ‘70s hippie scientists were messed up.”