Project Nim, James Marsh's documentary biopic of the '70s chimp picked to endure an "experiment" in simian sign language and general neglect, pulls human heartstrings as wrenchingly as any creature feature in nearly half a century.
Following brown-eyed beauty Nim, by turns cuddly and ferocious, from an Oklahoma cage to an Upper West Side brownstone and then back behind bars, Marsh (Man on Wire) imbues a wild story with true-life tragicomedy — something akin to PBS's vérité classic An American Family, but with fur.
Snatched from his mother's arms, then shuttled between surrogate parents who teach him to apologize for his natural rage, Nim is a natural-born rebel in crazy times. He enjoys his Oedipal phase, hits puberty, puffs pot, bites the hand that feeds and generally goes ape before getting busted by the Man. As the primate's human sister puts it, "It was the '70s."
Nim is an animal, of course, but Marsh also pictures him as a troubled teen in a series of profoundly dysfunctional families. Bereft of one wounded caregiver after another, the simian pupil certainly can't be blamed for learning to attack — or harden his heart. Indeed, watching Marsh's exquisitely sad film, a human can't help harboring the occasional fantasy of Nim rising to lead a planet of apes in fiery conquest. —Rob Nelson
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