‘Lucy the Human Chimp’: Film Review

Alex Parkinson’s documentary is a first-person account of an extraordinary bond between a famous chimpanzee and the young caretaker who befriended her in the second half of her life.

There’s no such thing as a human chimp, but half a century ago a chimpanzee’s conditioning by her human “parents” famously blurred the lines. Lucy Temerlin lived in the suburbs with a psychologist and his wife, went for rides with them in the station wagon, and enjoyed the occasional gin and tonic. After a point, though — that point being puberty — she spent most of her time in a backyard chain-link cage because her size and aggressiveness were wreaking havoc on this nuclear family’s domestic bliss.

Going beyond the headlines, filmmaker Alex Parkinson revisits the groundbreaking case through the firsthand recollections of a key participant, one who met Lucy after her days as an experimental subject and followed her well into her troubled retirement. As its title signals, Lucy the Human Chimp is a story of communion, but also of a certain naivete and misplaced idealism. Love and devotion define Lucy’s extraordinary biography. So do human folly and chimpanzee trauma.

The Bottom Line

A stirring double portrait.

RELEASE DATE Apr 29, 2021

The documentary, which premieres April 29 on HBO Max (a shorter version bows 10 days earlier on Channel 4 in the U.K.), revolves around two unforgettable figures. First there’s Lucy, born as an intended entertainment attraction in a roadside zoo, snatched from her mother’s arms — literally — in the name of science, and ultimately torn from the creature comforts to which she’d become accustomed, transferred to a natural setting that was utterly foreign to her. The second central character is Janis Carter, arguably Lucy’s best friend. Her revelatory straight-to-camera interview shapes the film, her deeply felt memories illustrated by archival stills and footage as well as reenactments.

Carter was a grad student in the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies when, in 1976, she took a part-time job working for psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife, Jane, as caretaker to Lucy. From the outset this was no ordinary gig. A graduate of the institute’s sign language project, Lucy was 11 at the time, had a vocabulary of 120 words, and had spent all but the first two days of her life living with the Temerlins. But as much as the couple still regarded her as their daughter, she had outgrown the cute-and-cuddly stage and was considered unpredictable and dangerous. They forbade Carter from engaging with Lucy, instructing her to simply feed the chimp and clean up after her. But Lucy had other ideas.

Recognizing the bond that developed between Lucy and Carter, the Temerlins eventually invited their employee to participate in the next, difficult chapter of Lucy’s life: placing her in a new home on the other side of the world. A project of the Abuko Nature Reserve, in The Gambia in western Africa, was dedicated to teaching chimps raised in captivity how to live in the wild. The plan was for Carter to stay there with Lucy a few days longer than the Temerlins. But seeing how disoriented, depressed and weak her friend was growing in the new environment, Carter delayed her return to the States. Speaking of the commitments that were waiting for her back home, she lists them in this telling order: a teaching assistantship, a dog, a boyfriend.

Other chimps at Abuko would be placed in Carter’s care, and though she explains now that she was winging it, her work there was featured on an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, a longtime staple of Sunday-night broadcast TV. Parkinson makes strong use of this footage, as he does of material from the personal collections of Carter and Jane Temerlin. More intimate exchanges between his doc’s two central characters are enacted by Lorna Nickson Brown as a wide-eyed and openhearted 25-year-old Carter, and Peter Elliott, in a chimpanzee suit as Lucy — an approach that works thanks to careful framing and strategic blurring.

Through her fidelity to Lucy, Carter would find her calling, changing her life in ways that most people wouldn’t dare consider, let alone carry out. She braved dangers, embraced solitude, and found a way of living in a “perfect paradise.” As to what Lucy found, we’ll never know and can only guess. But nobody could come closer than Carter does in shedding light on Lucy’s story, on the real connections she made in the world of human beings, and at what cost. Parkinson’s doc is a heart-wrenching reminder of how little we know — and are willing to acknowledge — about the intelligence and emotional lives of nonhuman earthlings.

The Temerlins, in Carter’s words, had found themselves in a predicament of their own making. Their nature-vs.-nature explorations were well-meaning but desperately benighted, something they’re both heard acknowledging in the film. In voiceover, Jane makes her regrets clear. Maurice, in an interview clip from Good Morning America after the 1975 publication of his book Lucy: Growing Up Human, admits to David Hartman that “Lucy might have missed something not knowing chimpanzees.”

Among the film’s most piercing details is Carter’s memory of Lucy’s farewell hug, a gesture that was intense with feeling and, crucially, initiated by the chimp. For most of Lucy’s life she could only react to one inexplicable disruption after another. Another detail that stands out in this unforgettable saga: On the flight to Africa, Lucy traveled in the cargo hold, and the first class passengers could hear her screams.

Distributor: HBO Max
Production companies: Keo Films, Channel 4
Cast: Janis Carter, Lorna Nickson Brown, Peter Elliott, Jacinta Mulcahy, Alex Boyle
Director-screenwriter: Alex Parkinson
Producer: Bridget Appleby
Executive producers: Matthew Cole, Sacha Mirzoeff, Casey Meurer
Directors of photography: Tom German, Alex Parkinson
Production designer: Caroline Greville-Morris
Costume designer: Jo Buckley
Editor: Sam Rogers
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Casting director: Nancy Bishop

80 minutes