Science Friction

Dopamine looks at love and loss from a chemical perspective

Is it real or is it biochemical? Does love spring from some mysterious, serendipitous, irrational depth or is it a cut-and-dried chemical reaction, a function of pheromones as coldblooded as a snake? Dopamine, the feature directorial debut of Mark Decena, poses just such a question.

The film (shot in San Francisco) takes its title from a natural chemical that our bodies produce when we fall in love. Being male and into computers, Rand (John Livingston, brother of actor Ron) has an analytical mind, but one with a decidedly intellectual bent. Nothing wrong with that, except that he falls, if not in love, then certainly in like with an elementary school teacher named Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), who's all about emotion. The movie follows their budding romance, which comes in such fits and starts it's unclear to either of them whether there's anything solid underneath. Rand is happy just to go with the feeling, whatever has caused it, and see where it leads; Sarah wants assurances that Rand's feelings are emotionally based and deep.

They first meet when both show up at a bar one night. There's an instant attraction, but Rand is too timid, or perhaps cautious, to act on it. They run into one another again accidentally. Rand is one of three partners in a start-up, and his firm's sole client is a Japanese outfit that wants to create a computer-animated pet substitute. He concocts a bird named Koy Koy, who's supposed to be cute, lovable, and engaging to children, especially those who have difficulty relating to other kids. His company tests Koy Koy in a kindergarten class that Sarah teaches.

The Man Show: Johnson (Rueben 
Grundy), Rand (John Livingston), 
and Winston (Bruno Campos).
The Man Show: Johnson (Rueben Grundy), Rand (John Livingston), and Winston (Bruno Campos).

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An unusually thoughtful man, Rand's still male, which means that he's rather obtuse when it comes to affairs of the heart. His father (William Windom), bitter since his wife succumbed to Alzheimer's, insists that love is a chemical reaction, and that when the brain's chemistry suffers a trauma (like Alzheimer's), love is wiped out. Rand doesn't know what to think. Meanwhile, his work partners offer contrasting styles: Winston (Bruno Campos) is a callous womanizer, while Johnson (Rueben Grundy) is philosophical and shy.

At heart this is a film about loss -- coming to terms with it and, one hopes, moving on. Rand's sadness springs from his mother's medical condition. She still lives at home, unable to speak or comprehend, staring endlessly and silently into space. Sarah's pain is a deep emotional gash, a loss so overpowering that it seeps into every aspect of her life, every thought, every action, every relationship.

The ideas behind the story are intriguing and could prompt endless hours of lively discussion, but the movie proves surprisingly drab. There's a stiffness to the proceedings that could be intentional -- the more intellectual side of the love equation -- or it could derive from the fact that this is Decena's first feature-length film (he co-wrote the script with Timothy Breitbach) and he's still learning his craft.

All the actors show promise. Lloyd reveals a quicksilver inner turmoil, one that her character half tries to control but that always seems to get the upper hand. Livingston captures the romance-challenged density of even a sensitive American (or perhaps just human) male. Grundy and Campos also acquit themselves admirably. Sadly, Koy Koy doesn't fare as well. A rubbery CG bird exhibiting neither softness nor cuteness, he hardly seems a creature kids or adults would cotton to. Maybe you have to be a computer geek to like him.

Dopamine premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and is being released as part of the Sundance Film Series. Shot on high-definition video, it was awarded a special prize at the festival by the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit that seeks to enhance public awareness of science and technology. The movie does an excellent job of enhancing viewers' awareness of the chemical reactions rumbling beneath the surface of romantic attraction. It is worth noting that it was an intellectually minded organization that bestowed the award and not a group of romance-novel enthusiasts. Yet one unspoken question remains: In the grand scheme of things, isn't chocolate a lot cheaper and simpler than love?

 
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