A variation on the indie slacker dramas of the '90s, "Dopamine" manages to rise above the navel-gazing of that genre with well-developed characters and strong performances, particularly by the leads, John Livingston and Sabrina Lloyd.
Written by Mark Decena and Timothy Breitbach and directed by Decena, the movie overcomes some forced artiness to be a sweet, smart romance without being saccharine.
Livingston plays Rand, a computer animator whose view of relationships is based primarily on his father's theory that all human emotions are simply chemical reactions generated by biological necessity. One of those necessities, of course, is perpetuation of the species, which leads to interaction of the sexes and ... strong chemical reactions. Or is it love?
"Dopamine's" title comes from the name of the naturally occurring chemical produced by the human body that may or may not explain the euphoria we feel when falling in love. When Rand first meets Lloyd's character, Sarah, a painter-kindergarten teacher, in a bar, he hesitates, unsure how to respond to her obvious interest.
The nominal plot, about an interactive animated bird named Koy Koy that Rand and his business partners are developing, is less interesting than the interaction between the characters but serves to give Rand a second chance with Sarah.
While Rand and Sarah are both somewhat introverted, the actors use very different approaches to draw in the audience. Livingston, whose brother, Ron, has appeared in "Swingers," "Office Space" and "Band of Brothers," gives Rand a raised eyebrow, bemused wariness that reveals his discomfort with the idea of love. His father's theories make for a good cover story but leave him ill-prepared for someone as complex as Sarah.
Lloyd plays Sarah with a smoldering directness, her piercing dark eyes allowing Rand little room to avoid his feelings. She has little patience for his theories and forces him to face the real reasons he has embraced them. Likewise, Rand prompts Sarah to examine her impulsive, sometimes self-destructive behavior and confront the causes of her own inward-directed anger.
Together, Livingston and Lloyd exhibit their own chemistry — the kind actors need to make a movie romance plausible and lead audiences to care whether their characters get together.
Visually, Decena and cinematographer Rob Humphreys use 24P digital video (24 frames per second, like film, rather than video's standard 30) to beautifully capture contemporary, post-cyberboom San Francisco in all its mist-shrouded glory.
The filmmakers unfortunately use a gimmick — a CGI representation of the chemical reactions in Rand as he experiences the initial attraction and later, deeper feelings toward Sarah — that at first seems clever but eventually wears thin, proving a distraction at key dramatic points. Several highly stylized montages seem at odds with the movie's own nature.
Although flawed, "Dopamine" is ultimately a witty and perceptive movie dealing with the ways people experience love and loss in an increasingly distracted and remote world. Part of the Sundance Film Series, this is exactly the type of movie that lacks the obvious commercial elements to attract a name-brand distributor but is accessible enough to deserve an audience beyond the festival circuit.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexuality and brief drug use.
Times guidelines: Nothing graphic.
John Livingston ... Rand
Sabrina Lloyd ... Sarah
Bruno Campos ... Winston
Rueben Grundy ... Johnson
Nicole Wilder ... Machiko
William Windom ... Tom
Sundance Channel presents a Kontent Films production, released by Sundance Film Series. Director Mark Decena. Producers Debbie Brubaker, Tad Fettig. Executive producer Eric Koivisto. Screenplay by Mark Decena & Timothy Breitbach. Cinematographer Rob Humphreys. Editor Jessica Congdon. Music Eric Holland. Production designer S. Quinn. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
Exclusively at the Loews Cineplex Beverly Center, 8522 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (310) 652-7760.