Zookeeper isn't the only movie about talking animals opening this weekend. But the other one, Project Nim (Roadside Attractions), a documentary from James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning Man on Wire, isn't a heartwarming comedy about a group of furry beasts who use their newfound power of language to help their caretaker find love with Rosario Dawson. It's a gripping, unsentimental, at times unbearably sad real-life drama about an animal torn from his own world and stranded in the human one. I could wish Project Nim were a different movie—longer and more information-dense, with fewer poorly signposted re-enactments and self-conscious directorial flourishes. But I'll be forever grateful to this movie for introducing me to Nim's story, a tale so powerful and suggestive that it functions as a myth about the ever-mysterious relationship between human beings and animals. Are we more like them than we can ever know, or more different?
The early scenes of Project Nim focus on the likeness rather than the difference. In 1973, Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia, devised an experiment to study language capabilities in primates. (His former colleagues describe Terrace as arrogant and vain, a characterization that's largely borne out by the archival footage and present-day interviews we see.) At a research center in Oklahoma, a screaming newborn chimpanzee was taken from his mother after she was knocked out by a tranquilizer dart—in essence, a violent kidnapping, which is re-enacted in a harrowing pre-credit sequence. From there the infant chimp—called Nim Chimpsky, a play on the name of influential linguist Noam Chomsky—was transferred to home of Stephanie LaFarge, a young mother who had been Terrace's student and lover. LaFarge occupied a gracious Upper West Side brownstone with her "rich hippie" poet husband, a Brady Bunch-style pack of young siblings, and a German shepherd.
LaFarge and her grown daughter appear in interviews, recalling how their household was both upended and transfixed by the presence of this tiny, cuddlesome, wildly destructive infant chimp, who wore diapers and baby clothes and ate at the table with the family. Though LaFarge kept no scientific records of Nim's progress (a fact other researchers note with scorn) she did shoot a lot of home movies, which provide a charming visual for these early interviews. But here, and throughout the film, Marsh also uses staged re-enactments of past events that are just realistic enough to make you doubt the authenticity of every clip you see thereafter. It's a boy-who-cried-wolf narrative strategy that doesn't serve the film well.
Feast your eyes on the adorable home-movie footage of a romper-clad Nim dismantling Modern Library first editions, because things get very sad, very soon. Frustrated with LaFarge's slipshod approach (to be fair, she does come off as a real flake, with stories of breastfeeding the chimp and giving him hits off her joint), Dr. Terrace takes Nim back and settles with him into an unused grand estate belonging to the university. There, accompanied by a revolving-door series of attractive young female protégées (many of whom, now accomplished social scientists, appear in interviews), Terrace sets out to teach Nim sign language while maintaining a quasi-rigorous experimental environment. The chimp continues to live like a human baby, but his advances in language acquisition are duly recorded.
As Nim grows larger and stronger and starts to assert his instinct for dominance, the daily struggles of getting him fed and dressed turn into life-threatening perils for his keepers. Finally, after a research assistant's face is badly gashed, Terrace dissolves the experiment and takes Nim back to the research center where he was born. Overnight, Nim goes from a coddled baby in a mansion to a lonely ape in a cage. I won't give away the tragic turns the story took thereafter, except to say that this chimp's downward social mobility is something out of an Edith Wharton novel.
There is one bright spot in Nim's later life: Bob Ingersoll, a worker at the Oklahoma research lab who befriended the chimp and took him out on walks, where they picked berries, communicated in sign language, and—you can't make this stuff up—smoked joints together. "I had the best time of my life," recalls Ingersoll, deciding on reflection that his hours with Nim were even better than a Grateful Dead show. Though the director pokes gentle fun at him, as he does at most of the film's interview subjects, Ingersoll comes across as a more trustworthy narrator than most of the other people who drifted through Nim's life: Where Terrace is defensive and LaFarge too self-forgiving, Ingersoll both appreciates Nim's otherness and seeks to communicate their shared experiences.
Project Nim does something more complex than advocate against the suffering of lab animals (though some scenes do just that, with passion and clarity). It asks what our responsibilities are toward those who require our care. Watching Nim be dragged unwillingly into the human world and then abandoned in a hell that's neither human nor animal, I couldn't stop thinking of the story of Genie, a girl who was found in 1970 in a horribly abusive home in California, where she was had been kept chained to a chair in a dark room for most of her young life. Scientists, thrilled at the prospect of a real live "wild child" on whom to test theories of language development, passed her from hand to hand for years until, once her limited ability to learn language was apparent, she was left to be cared for in a group home. It's easy to express outrage at the researchers' betrayal of Genie by saying she was "treated like an animal." But as Project Nim makes painfully clear, treating animals with such cavalier indifference is just as inhuman.