on October 10, 2003 by Sheri Linden
With its intelligent, likable characters and playful use of artificial intelligence to explore a simple love story, "Dopamine" is an auspicious directorial debut by Mark Decena. Taking its title from the "pleasure drug" the body produces during courtship, the film pits technology and science against emotional knowledge. At times it states its themes too directly, but through lovely low-key performances and visuals achieves an aching moodiness that's tender and affecting. Shot on high-definition video, "Dopamine" avoids travelogue prettiness in its use of San Francisco locations; the city's bridges stretch over dusky water like synapses between nerves. This is the only film to go through every phase of the Sundance network, from the institute's filmmaking labs to the festival and the theatrical series, which is releasing it in 10 markets.

John Livingston stars as Rand, a young computer animator and software designer who's working around the clock with his partners (Bruno Campos, Rueben Grundy) to meet the launch date for their first product, a virtual pet named Koy Koy. They take the AI critter, a shy bird who responds to voice prompts, for a test run in a kindergarten class, where one of the teachers, Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), turns out to be a woman Rand and Winston (Campos) met a few nights earlier at a pub. In a convincing glimpse of neurotic mating rituals, although she and Rand clearly were attracted to each other, she went home with the more aggressive Winston for a brutally brief one-night stand.

Koy Koy sparks musings by Rand and Sarah on the nature of human interaction, while running throughout the film is a sort of philosophical dialogue about love between Rand and his father (William Windom). The elder man, protecting himself from his profound anguish over his wife's Alzheimer's, insists on physiological explanations for emotions. He's instilled that logical perspective in Rand, who attributes love to hormones and pheromones--until Sarah forces him to reconsider. As she and Rand each guard unspoken sorrows, there's a believable fitful progress to their relationship. The whole cast delivers fine work, with Lloyd making an especially strong impression. Starring John Livingston, Sabrina Lloyd, Bruno Campos, Rueben Grundy, William Windom and Nicole Wilder. Directed by Mark Decena. Written by Mark Decena and Timothy Breitbach. Produced by Debbie Brubaker and Tad Fettig. A Sundance Film Series release. Drama. Rated R for language, sexuality and brief drug use. Running time: 85 min

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