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Movie Review: ‘Nim’ examines ideas about humanity

The baby was taken from his mother’s arms when he was only a few days old and whisked away to a distant place where he knew no one.

Those who surrounded and raised him insisted they had his best interest in mind, even as the fragile relationship they forged with him evolved in a way that made their lofty goals difficult. Eventually he grew up and was dumped — lost, lonely and friendless — back where he started.

Such a life would seem horrific for a child. As “Project Nim” reveals, this was the sad and mixed-up existence of a chimpanzee who was raised as a child — until his animal instincts became too overpowering, and it became painfully obvious that the people in charge of him had no idea what they were doing.

Director James Marsh, who won the documentary-feature Oscar for 2008’s “Man on Wire,” takes on yet another story of astounding human behavior; while he crafted that film about tightrope-walker Philippe Petit with the thrills of a heist flick, “Project Nim,” an animal tale, plays like an engrossing, dramatic biography.

Marsh has interviewed the key players from this bold experiment from the 1970s, most of whom look back with a clear-eyed combination of fondness and regret. You get the sense that their intentions were honorable — at least, at first. You also get the sense that Marsh isn’t judging them — that he’s letting them tell their version of what happened to Nim, and letting us draw our own conclusions. He includes some period-rich reenactments (for cohesion, perhaps?) but he didn’t need them. He’s already got an engaging supply of video footage, photos and present-day recollections.

Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace wanted to see what would happen if a chimpanzee were raised among people and taught sign language — whether there would be a breakthrough in the study of communication between humans and animals. If there is a villain to be found in “Project Nim,” it’s Terrace, who comes off to this day as aloof and indifferent to the damage he’s done. And yet, there he is, willingly sharing his memories of those years with great detail.

Terrace got help from various “mothers”: friends, assistants and teachers who took care of Nim and worked with him from his earliest days. They changed his diapers and dressed him in cute little polyester leisure suits. They concocted games and ran around the yard with him; the sign Nim made up for the word “play” — a quick, single clap of the hands — was his lifelong favorite. Stephanie LaFarge, the woman who first housed him on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her husband and their seven kids, even went so far as to breastfeed the chimp.

Well, it was the ‘70s — and the film has plenty of those it-was-the-’70s moments. Bob Ingersoll, who ended up becoming one of Nim’s great champions, even acknowledged he’d rather spend time with the chimp than Jerry Garcia.

But like the experiment itself, “Project Nim” morphs from something inspiring and often humorous to a pointed and disturbing portrait of arrogance run amok. Greed and glory end up overriding decency and altruism, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

“Project Nim” ends on a vaguely uplifting note, but not before shaking you up and making you ponder what humanity is really all about.

“Project Nim,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images. Running time: 93 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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