“Dopamine” is Mark Decena’s first journey as a director and it shows. While there are some lovely scenes and an evocative remote feeling, the dialogue and MESSAGE are as facile and meaningful as Snapple cap quotes. Decena has made a promising start here and the spunky performances by the leads (and its brief length at 84 minutes) keep the movie’s slow trot of a pace from getting dull. However, similar to those seemingly amazing ideas that result from philosophical discussions in the wee hours of the night, this movie loses brilliance in the light of day.
Rand (John Livingston) is a regular guy who is working hard on creating an interactive computer friend named Koy Koy with co-partners Johnson (Rueben Grundy, a dread-locked designated decent guy) and Winston (Bruno Campos, whose alpha-male persona from “ER” is given free rein here). Meanwhile Rand is trying to reconcile his conflicting feelings about romantic relationships as he watches his father retreat from loving husband into bitterness in response to his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. Rand chooses to hide from intimacy by explaining away love as a chemical reaction hard-wired into our DNA, acting as drug whose effect is doomed to wane over time. The closest he gets to an intimate relationship is in his feelings for his own creation, Koy Koy.
The plot is fairly simple, which is a good thing. The psychology is equally simple which is not as good a thing. Rand might as well be reciting Bio 101 for all the passion he commits to his argument. Johnson is a disturbingly patient fount of good advice on how to be human, while Winston is an anthropomorphized id, greedy and self-absorbed. Against these emotional primary colors, the deus ex machina for life (and plot) development are the venture capitalists, who force the three partners to “test” their product’s synchronicity with the perceived target market: kids. Enter Sarah (TV’s Sabrina Lloyd), the petite teacher/artist, whose saucer-eyes are haunted by a past unresolved relationship which has “left deep holes to fill” (yeesh).
Johnson makes the first move on the passive Sarah but it is Rand who spends the majority of the movie courting her in his own conflicted way. The scenes between them alternate between sparkling and soggy as they tread over-familiar ground in their journey to understand love. It gives nothing away to say that along the way they learn a little about themselves and a lot about the nature of loving relationships, which is the MESSAGE after all and is not a bad message to have at that. But it could have been delivered with a little more, well, heart.
This film is the first that was incubated from beginning to end at the Sundance Institute, and that is why it seems oddly overly structured for an independent film. That is usually more of a problem for an overcooked studio creation as a result of input by too many executives and not enough faith in the audience’s ability to figure things out on its own. “Dopamine’s” characters seem pinned down by the motivations assigned to them, as though their behavior was programmed — like Koy Koy’s.
Parents should be aware that sexual relations are both extremely casual and alternately devoid/laden with psychological implications. Characters use drugs to deal with a stressful work situation. Smoking and drinking are the social norm. Emotional detachment, refutation of love’s existence by a husband for his sick wife, and passivity in slipping into relationships are adult themes that will not be suitable for kids and young teens.
Families should discuss different types of relationships that exist and how they change over time, under duress or during the upheaval of personal growth. How is the relationship between Johnson and Rand different at the end of the movie? How might the creation of Koy Koy’s mate represent a more complicated emotional step for Rand than for his partners?
Families also might discuss whether the vocabulary of “love” is misleading here, from Rand’s description of the initial, chemical feeling of attraction versus Sarah’s search for something more meaningful.
Families who enjoy this movie might wish to see Singles, which shares a similarly ambivalent take on love in relationships between twenty-somethings. Those who enjoy William Windom’s performance as Rand’s father might wish to see him in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.