Movie Review: Lucy The Human Chimp (2021) - A remarkable story let down by superfluous re-enactments
I've been riding horses all of my life at the same ranch in rural Victoria. There have been a few horses that I've bonded with, and in recent years it has been my darling Alabama. I know her stride when she runs and her stamina when cantering uphill. She doesn't freak out if we come across a group of kangaroos, and we've always had a mutual trust, so if she slows down as we come across large dips in the road, I'll happily let her navigate the way downhill with looser reigns. It's hard not to cherish each moment I can connect with Alabama because it's a fleeting opportunity to engage with this wild steed and tackle the world together.
The HBO Max documentary film Lucy The Human Chimp chronicles the incredible life of a chimp named Lucy, who is raised as an experiment in a household with two human parents, Maurice Temerlin and his wife, Jane Temerlin. When Lucy enters her teenage years and becomes too aggressive, she is moved outside into a cage, and the family hires a graduate student, Janis Carter, to clean the cage and feed Lucy. They didn't expect that she would become Lucy's closest friend and stay with Lucy until her final days.
The documentary is told through re-enactments and a beautiful interview with Janis. She reflects on her bond with Lucy and subsequent move to Africa when Maurice and Jane decide to acclimate Lucy into an environment with other chimpanzees, thereby learning how to fend for herself. The re-enactments don't exactly add to the documentary's charm because the interviews with Janis are enough to paint a picture of her life with Lucy. It's an incredible true story that also looks at archival footage and photographs to detail this wonderful friendship.
Lucy was taken into the Temerlin's home as an infant and was raised in an entirely human setting. She learned 120 words through sign language and lived in the house until her behavior became too unpredictable, which had resulted in the couple losing friends. After Lucy moved into a cage, Janis was hired as caretaker and was instructed never to communicate with Lucy. However, Lucy, eager for contact, began signaling for Janis to approach the fence. As Janis started to gain Lucy's trust, the two began grooming each other and formed a powerful bond.
The Temerlin's eventually realized that Lucy's domestication went against her primal instincts and decided to place her in a home across the world at the Abuko Nature Reserve in West Africa. Janis joined the Temerlin's to Africa, hoping to help Lucy acclimate to her surroundings. However, after the Temerlin's left, Janis found she couldn't abandon Lucy and spent the next decade working with chimps and helping Lucy uncover her innate abilities to survive.
Unfortunately, without much access to archival footage or reliance on more detailed testimony from Janis, filmmaker Alex Parkinson instead focuses too heavily on re-enactments to detail Janis's recollections of her time with Lucy. It feels redundant, given that Janis's history with the chimps is extreme. Instead, the film might've focussed on Janis's full story and the events that kept her in Africa.
However, by the third act, Parkinson all but leaves the re-enactments behind, and the genuinely heartbreaking story is better served with just photos to accompany Janis's testimony. It's a tale that reminds you of living in the moment and our ability, as humans, to connect with primates who are so incredibly similar to us. Lucy's upbringing made her integration much more complex, and Janis understood what needed to take place for Lucy to live in the wild.
Janis's testimony is divine, and her recollections of Lucy will make you reflect on your relationship with animals, even house pets. Her bond with Lucy pushes beyond fleeting moments. It's a lifetime, and Janis never gave up on helping Lucy survive in the wild.
Now available to stream on HBO Max.