Has an ape ever made you cry? You just might shed a tear for Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee whose fate is detailed in James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim. He was plucked out of his tranquilized mother’s arms in 1973, sent to live with a family in New York’s Upper West Side, and taught sign language in what was a nature/nurture experiment designed by Columbia University animal cognition scholar Herbert Terrace. Nim’s new mother, an upscale hippie named Stephanie, breastfed him and “wasn’t concerned with discipline.” Nim didn’t get along with Stephanie’s husband and antagonized him; he was generally allowed to run around and destroy things as he pleased. Stephanie gave him alcohol and pot. Laura, a research assistant sent to aid Stephanie early in the project, described the atmosphere as “utter chaos.”
But the lot of them (the couple had several other children) managed to teach Nim how to communicate and, always dressed in kid’s clothes, he became one of the family. Which made it that much more devastating when Terrace decided to remove Nim to an estate in Riverdale, N.Y., where the professor along with Laura and a few new teachers raised Nim and continued his education. As well as theirs: As Nim became older, they realized the importance of asserting dominance over the chimp, though there were of course mishaps—like when Nim lunged at Laura and pounded her head into pavement. “You don’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you,” she now says.
Home videos and old photos comprise the bulk of Project Nim, along with recent interviews with Terrace and several of his assistants. They detail an almost idyllic time caring for an ape who, for the most part, became a charming companion and addition to their lives. Look at him put on his own shorts! Look at him hugging a cat! Aww. The cute factor—and seeming success of the language experiment—outweighs eye-rolling canned commentary like “As much as we were molding him, he was starting to mold us.” Also unnecessary: Weird flourishes like Nim’s vocabulary scrawled across the screen. The director can also get melodramatic, as with one scene involving a medical experiment, in which a chimp receives a shot on a hospital bed before the camera pans to a piece of paper on the wall illustrating the sign for “play.”
Yes, the medical experiments: Things aren’t always brownstones and bananas for Nim. When Terrace abruptly ends the project, Nim is treated like just another chimp, and his experiences over the next decade or so will break your heart. The documentary as a whole is fascinating, an illuminating look at how close we really are to our animal brethren, how a nugget of nature may be unchangeable, but how chimps—and, by extension, us—are moldable by our surroundings. Nim as a project may have been limited to one ape, but the ramifications are universal.
The Tree Directed by Julie Bertuccelli
An unlikely bond with nature is also the center of The Tree, writer-director Julie Bertuccelli’s adaptation (with scripter Elizabeth J. Mars) of a novel about a little girl who communicates with her dead father via a gigantic, gnarled fig tree on the family’s rural Australian property. The tree is literally and figuratively uprooting the household. It stands for paralyzing mourning—an inability or unwillingness to move on. Its destruction is the only way the family will be set free. Metaphor isn’t sprinkled lightly here.
Parts of The Tree are devastating. Within the film’s opening minutes, we see Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg, unkempt as ever) and her handsome husband, Peter (Aden Young), canoodling happily before he takes off on a trucking job. He gets back a few days later but hardly has time for hellos before succumbing to a heart attack while driving, with his young daughter Simone (Morgana Davies)—apple of his eye and all that—in tow. Eight-year-old Simone and her three brothers naturally take it hard, not sad as much as in shock and even angry. But Dawn is different: Her trauma quickly gives way to a crippling depression. She spends days in bed sobbing and barely able to take care of her children.
One night, Simone drags her mother out of bed to climb that monstrous tree. Dad’s there, she says. He talks to me. Can you hear him? Maybe, Dawn replies—whether out of sympathy for her daughter or desperation to reconnect with her husband, it’s not clear. But Simone proceeds to practically live in that tree, whose roots are destroying not only the family’s property but their neighbor’s as well. Meanwhile, on a trip to town to find some help for their haywire plumbing, Dawn lands herself a job. She’s never had one before, and the plumber who eventually comes to her rescue (in more ways than one) takes her brief glance at a help-wanted sign as interest in the position. George (Marton Csokas) is hot, and eight months after Peter’s death, Dawn supposes she’s going to need money, so she accepts.
This is where The Tree morphs from a gut-wrenching drama to a sometimes infuriating snoozer. Dawn’s grief starts coming across as passivity, cluelessness, and irresponsibility. Had she honestly never before considered that she might need to start working? Can she run a comb and maybe some shampoo through that damn hair? Is she seriously going to sleep underneath the giant branch that crashed into her bedroom? (Really.) Worst, though, is her willingness to let her children dominate her. At one point, Simone seems to have adjusted well, telling her friend: “You have a choice to be happy or sad. And I chose to be happy.” That is, of course, when she was allowed to spend all her time in the tree and Mom was single. When George enters the picture—and it becomes obvious that the tree must come down—Simone turns pissy and stubborn. What does Dawn do? Takes whatever Simone dishes out, and calls her “sweetheart.” Gainsbourg’s slightness and dishevelment only add to her character’s apparent weakness. (Davies, however, is a fiery marvel we’re sure to see more of.)
This all may sound like a fair amount of plot, but The Tree actually moves at the pace of sap. There are only so many ways a family can have the same argument, and Dawn’s dithering gets tedious. The film, while narratively straightforward, actually somewhat resembles The Tree of Life, dominated by long periods of near silence and upward shots of the sun shining through rustling leaves, suggesting a magical place. But The Tree isn’t magical. It’s a metaphor stretched too far.