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 cold-blooded as a snake? Dopamine, the feature directorial debut of Mark Decena, poses just such a question.

The film 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 he falls...if not in love, certainly in like...with an elementary schoolteacher named Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), who is all about emotion. The film follows their budding, "potential" romance, which comes in such fits and starts it's unclear to either of them whether there is anything solid underneath. Rand is happy to just go with the feeling, whatever has caused it, and see where it leads. But Sarah wants assurance 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 each other again quite accidentally. Rand is one of three partners in a start-up computer and software design company, and his company's sole client is a Japanese firm that wants to create a computer-animated pet-substitute. Rand concocts a bird named Koy Koy, who is supposed to be cute, lovable and engaging to children, especially those who have difficulty relating to other kids. His company tests out Koy Koy in a kindergarten class that Sarah teaches.

Dopamine, starring Sabrina Lloyd, looks at the chemical side of love...um, shouldn't it be called Alcohol then?
Dopamine, starring Sabrina Lloyd, looks at the chemical side of love...um, shouldn't it be called Alcohol then?

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

At heart this is a film about loss, coming to terms with it and hopefully 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 film proves surprisingly drab. There is 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 is still learning his craft.

All of the actors show promise. Lloyd reveals a quicksilver, inner emotional turmoil, one that her character half tries to control but which 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 half as well. A rubbery CG bird with neither softness nor cuteness, he hardly seems a creature kids or adults would cotton to. Maybe you have to be a computer geek.

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 organization that seeks to enhance public awareness of science and technology. The film does an excellent job of enhancing viewers' awareness of the chemical reactions rumbling beneath the surface of romantic attraction. It is, of course, worth noting that it was an intellectually minded organization that bestowed the award and not a group of romance-novel enthusiasts. The unspoken question raised by the film is: In the grand scheme of things, isn't chocolate a lot cheaper and simpler?

 
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