There’s a strange irony in the appalling trajectory of “Lucy the Human Chimp,” a documentary about an experiment that forced a chimp to live as a human, but resulted in requiring a human to live as a chimp.
That would be Janis Carter, whose uncontested voice and pained features dominate the screen as she narrates Lucy’s distressing story. As a student in the 1970s, Carter was hired as Lucy’s caretaker by the psychologists Maurice K. Temerlin and his wife, Jane, who had purchased the newborn chimpanzee roughly a decade earlier and raised her as a human in their suburban home.
But Lucy — who slept on a king-size mattress, communicated in sign language and mixed herself a mean cocktail — had become so large and dangerously hormonal that the Temerlins decided she’d be better off in the African jungle. (Never mind that she was an adult who knew nothing of the wild or other chimpanzees.) Her screaming during the flight was only a harbinger of the torment to come.
By turns alarming and poignant, Alex Parkinson’s infuriatingly deferential film recounts how Carter — passionately attached to Lucy and admittedly clueless about how to facilitate her adjustment — abandoned her life to live with Lucy on a remote island. Her devotion is extraordinary, but her obliviousness is shocking: If you believed, as she did, that Lucy saw herself as human, why would you compel her to live as a wild animal? Neither that question, nor any other, is asked by Parkinson, who uses archive footage and wonder-filled re-enactments to tell what he apparently views as a love story. Maybe it is; but it’s also a heart-rending tale of animal suffering and human hubris.
Lucy, the Human Chimp
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 8 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.