A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this engrossing, moving documentary about a groundbreaking study of animals and language has some intense material that may be too much for younger viewers. There are frank discussions about how a chimpanzee violently attacks his caretakers (some moments are dramatized, showing not the attacks themselves but the bloody aftermath) and references to drug use, even by the chimp. There's some swearing (including "f--k" and "s--t"), and participants talk about sexual relationships among colleagues, some of which don't end well. That said, teens and adults will be fascinated by both the scientific study at the heart of the movie and the politics and tensions behind it, and the movie is sure to spur discussion about animal rights and cruelty.
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What's the story?
In 1973, Columbia University psychology professor Herb Terrace began to examine whether animals could be taught to use language. Terrace took a young chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky) from his mother and gave him to an Upper West Side psychology student/mother, Stephanie LaFarge, to be raised along with the rest of her children. There, Nim was treated as a human child -- LaFarge even nursed him -- and was taught sign language; later, as the study expanded, Nim moved to an estate outside the city, where Terrace's research assistants -- including Laura Pettito, Joyce Butler, and Bill Tynan -- grew to know him, care for him, and love him. But taking an animal out of its natural habitat and community is, not surprisingly, complex. As advanced as Nim became, he was still a chimpanzee, with his natural inclinations manifesting as he grew older and stronger. When the project abruptly ended, what happened to Nim? PROJECT NIM is his story, as well as that of the men and women whose lives were irrevocably changed by him and of the politics of science itself.
Is it any good?
Engrossing, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking, Project Nim makes you think about how scientists have treated animals for academic gain. Told as grippingly as a thriller but without the bombast, the film humanizes (for lack of a better word) Nim's story and brings to the foreground the men and women he came into contact with, some of whom are still wrenched by what happened to him after the study was shuttered overnight.
Some reenactments aren't as clearly labeled as they should have been, and certain questions -- Was Columbia University aware of the study's invent-as-we-go parameters all along? -- aren't satisfyingly answered, but no matter. What we have here is an important film that dares to examine who is truly the animal: the chimpanzee plucked unknowingly from his mother's arms, or the scientists who might not have thought through the ethical dilemmas regarding his fate after the data was gathered and the intellectual work long over.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's messages about animal experimentation. Were the researchers right to do what they did? Should more questions be asked before a project is started? How did Project Nim influence future ethical dilemmas about animal experimentation?
Did you learn something from watching this movie? Should that be the goal of a documentary?
How are documentaries different from fictional movies? Do they effect change? If so, how?
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