"Singer": I sing songs about love.
(Everyone takes a breath)
Picasso: I would give it all up if I could sing songs about love. No more paints or brushes…just the Moonlight, the Junelight and You.
Einstein: People crowding in a smoky cabaret to hear the song stylings of Albert Einstein … appearing nightly with the Kentuckymen. Singing songs as pretty as a summer dress … lover's hand going into lover's hand.
It's hard to imagine anything new to be said about love in the arts. Everyone from Shakespeare to Kevin Smith, from Oscar Wilde to Wim Wenders have contributed to our understanding of love and love lost.
Screenwriters Mark Decena and Timothy Breitbach have not put forward any new ideas in the genre in Dopamine. There's no revelation here that hasn't been explored before. But the sweet simplicity of the script and the picture-perfect work of the cast make the film stand out in a crowded field.
Computer programmer Rand (John Livingston) is fighting a personal programming of his own; his father has instilled in Rand the idea that there is no such thing as "love," or feelings. Love is simply another chemical reaction. It's an idea that is reinforced by his deteriorating relationship with his mother, stuck in a catatonic state courtesy of late-stage Alzheimer's.
When Rand's program, an artificial intelligence classroom tool that comes in the form of a voice-activated bird named "Koy Koy," goes into its testing phase, he meets Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd). The attraction is apparent, but is it anything more than pheromones and dopamine?
The on-screen chemistry between Livingston and Lloyd would be enough to propel the film forward. Livingston's eyes are his most expressive trait, and they ooze affection for most of the film. Lloyd is a revelation as Sarah; both tough and hurt, strong and weak, Lloyd is at her most vulnerable in Dopamine and the result is mesmerizing.
What makes Dopamine so fascinating, though, is how every character is so fully developed. This is the rare example that proves the cliché, "There are no small parts, just small actors." Rueben Grundy and Bruno Campos play Rand's co-programmers, but each character gets to be so much more than "the friend of the lead." Special kudos are due to Campos, who is both hilarious and heartbreaking as the outwardly confident Winston.
Most interesting is how the film never takes the easy way out. Characters don't come out and confess their love for each other in ways that only occur in Hollywood. There are no "easy" lines, no copping out by just having someone shed his/her individual neurosis for a moment to propel the plot forward. It makes for a movie experience that is, at times, hard to watch, because the audience not only emphasizes with the characters but at some point has likely been in an uncomfortably similar situation.
Dopamine is one of four films in the 2003 Sundance Film Series. Other films from the series on DVD thus far are The Other Side of the Bed and In This World. The farce Die Mommie Die! will be released June 29, 2004.