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“Project Nim,” reviewed

“Project Nim,” reviewed (photo)

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This was the experiment: take a chimpanzee, raise it from birth like a human baby, and teach it to communicate with sign language. In other words: can you teach the animal right out of an animal? In his powerful new documentary “Project Nim,” director James Marsh chronicles the highly unorthodox 1970s linguistics experiment that sought to do just that. Some of the people he meets along the way could use their own lessons on how to act like a human.

The experiment was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace, who gave a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to one of his former students when he was less than two weeks old. Terrace told the ex-student, Stephanie, to raise the baby as a member of her family. So she did: clothing and diapering him, and teaching him sign language. But since Stephanie was a bit of a hippie that also meant letting him try alcohol and pot and even breast feeding him.

In many ways, baby Nim was like any human child: capable of great compassion (Stephanie’s daughter talks about how he used to kiss away her tears when she was sad) and prone to wild mood swings. But as he got older and began to pick up sign language, Terrace reasserted his dominance over the experiment, if you will, and reclaimed Nim, moving him to an estate where he could be monitored and tested full-time by a hand-picked staff of Columbia students and researchers, many of whom, in what I’m sure was just an incredible coincidence, were beautiful single women. The narrative Marsh weaves is thorny with jealousies and broken love affairs between Terrace and his staff. Animal urges, it seems, are not the exclusive province of animals.

Nim’s story seems at first like a cut-and-dried lesson in the power of nature over nurture. No matter how much his human companions dressed him or taught him to use the toilet Nim was still an animal, and by the time he was five years old he was too big, too strong, and too much of an aggressive, dominant chimpanzee to pretend otherwise. But allow me to propose an alternate theory: Nim’s childhood consisted of one jarring scenery change after another, and his human protectors often squabbled over custody of him like a bunch of divorcing parents. In all likelihood, Nim’s increasingly disobedient behavior was a simple case of genetic programming. But maybe the crazed, unfocused nurturing of the people around him helped things along.

Eventually, Terrace’s experiment comes to an unexpected conclusion and Nim is set adrift, sent to one depressing animal testing facility after another. This animal lived a remarkable life but he had no control over any of it, and the lack of agency he has in his own destiny makes “Project Nim” into a frequently heartbreaking film. There continues to be a debate over whether Nim truly learned to communicate or whether his ingrown skills as a brilliant beggar enabled him to ape the humans’ behavior without understanding it. But if we did teach him some small amount of cognition and expression, what we did to him next was an even greater tragedy.

With his experiment, Terrace draws one conclusion but Marsh, skillfully blending a healthy amount of archival footage with careful recreations and new interviews with most of the participants, may draw another with his film. Whether or not he could sign, regardless of how cute he was as a baby chimp, Nim was an animal. But just because he was an animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, or deserve simple human decency. “Project Nim” makes it pretty clear that he does, and that Nim spent years crushed beneath the weight of disappointment and abandonment before an unlikely savior appeared to give him back the joy of companionship and friendship. The forgiveness Nim displayed after that is something we humans could aspire to.

“Project Nim” opens Friday in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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