You're used to things beginning with an audible bang when you schlep into Utah's Park City, parka-clad and pleasantly buzzed from the oxygen-thin altitude, to celebrate the ten days of marathon filmgoing and blitz-marketing known as the Sundance Film Festival. One or two big-name titles start things off with gala premieres on the fest's first Thursday night. Red carpets get rolled out. Flashbulbs go off. Famous faces break into smiles. Crowds squeal.
But though the 2011 edition kicked off its usual to-do at the cavernous Eccles Theater with celebrities—notably Harry Belafonte, the subject of the docuportrait Sing My Song—and audience members with tickets were allegedly turned away at the door, the fact that films had already started screening during the day gave the evening a slightly already-in-progress feeling. The first Dramatic Competition film to screen at the Eccles was not a star-studded affair, but a scrappy slice-of-life drama named Pariah—the sort of earnest, regional low-budget indie that would have fit in with Sundance's lineup 25 years ago. It was, by many accounts, a mellow beginning for what can be a maelstrom-filled affair, suggesting the tone for '11 would be, hey, like, chill out. This year's official symbol is a delicate snowflake; "Be there" is the motto. Um, where else would we be?
So you can imagine the sigh of relief that came from the great unshaven masses of film journalists when we showed up to our inaugural press screening and it resembled the cacophonous zoo we've grown to love here. And given the viewing selection, the word zoo is not an arbitrary choice: James Marsh's Project Nim chronicles the (in)famous '70s social experiment involving teaching sign language to a chimpanzee named Nim. (The animal's full name—I couldn't make this up if I wanted to—was actually "Nim Chimpsky.")
Taken from its mother as a baby, Nim was given to a family in Upper Manhattan to be raised as if it were a human child; Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace later moved the animal to an upstate manor in the country, where he and his team started schooling the simian in earnest. Everything is rosy for months, until Nim starts to grow up and act out. Like most unruly teenagers, he begins to experiment with his sexuality. Note to self: If you give a chimp a kitty cat, he will masturbate with it—and bite the hand that feeds him. Or, in Nim's case, bite one caregiver's face.
Like the filmmaker's award-winning documentary Man on Wire, Marsh's examination of this failed attempt to fully humanize our genetic cousin unleashes an aresenal of pomo nonfiction tricks: aestheticized re-creations, dramatic music cues for seemingly mundane moments, loads of home-movie footage and stills. What's missing is a bigger picture regarding the result of the project, other than a) nature wins out over nurture and b) abandonment issues aren't the sole property of our species. As Nim gets passed from home to home—a primate research center in Oklahoma, an animal-testing lab, a sanctuary for abused animals—we watch him grow surly, sullen, violent. He can sign words, but he can't articulate his emotions. That's when things get dangerous.
There are rich veins to be mined here over the hubris of human beings, the impersonal nature of science versus the necessity of compassionate caregiving, and how some things are best left untested. Marsh never truly taps those sources; what we get instead is an intriguing and stylistic look at a failure to communicate that only skims the sociological aspects. It's a mild disappointment, but hey, the fest has just started. There's a lot of monkey business to witness in the next week.