Movie Review by Ann Hornaday: "Naturally Obsessed"

"Naturally Obsessed's" formula for success includes brainy personalities like Rob Townley, who says a Flaming Lips song induces protein crystals' growth. (By Liza Politi)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Movies about scientific research usually hinge on such hackneyed types as the mad scientist or stagy "Eureka!" moments. In "Naturally Obsessed," a funny, lively, thoroughly absorbing documentary playing at the Environmental Film Festival, it turns out that life in the lab has less to do with Hollywood-friendly plot points than ego, heartbreak, pickle juice, persistence and the Flaming Lips.

Produced by Richard and Carole Rifkind, whose film "The Venetian Dilemma" played the EFF in 2005, "Naturally Obsessed" plunges viewers into a lab at Columbia University Medical Center, where professor Larry Shapiro oversees a team of PhD candidates researching AMPK, the protein that controls appetite. Their research involves long hours of meticulous and often fruitless attempts to grow perfectly formed protein crystals, which can then be observed by X-ray crystallography. What's more, Shapiro and his grad students are racing against the competition to be first to publish results in breaking the AMPK code.

In close quarters, with each budding scientist grappling with personal and professional issues, personalities clash and emotions flare. Will Rob, a prickly would-be dropout, stay the course? Will Kil, whose upcoming marriage makes him long for stability and economic security, survive the uncertainty of lab work? Will Gabriele, who's returned to academia from the private sector, adjust to the isolation of life "on the bench," or will the teamwork of biotech beckon once again?

"Naturally Obsessed" clearly and gracefully raises the stakes, and moves viewers with ease and intimacy through a world too often portrayed as boring, nerdy and filled with indecipherable jargon. Propelled by a very cool soundtrack (Rob insists that the Flaming Lips song "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" helps his crystals grow) and equally hip protagonists guaranteed to permanently dispel that shopworn nerd stereotype, "Naturally Obsessed" arrives as a welcome antidote to recent years in which science has been routinely ignored, distorted, misunderstood and otherwise dismissed.

That's part of why EFF Director Flo Stone decided to include "Naturally Obsessed" in this year's lineup, even though the film doesn't deal with the environment per se. "We need to get back to science-based answers for very serious questions," she says.

"These breakthroughs on human health are really about the mysteries of life. They really are a part of our environment," Stone adds. "We need them and we need to respect them and get the best people into these kinds of positions."

As an example of those "best people," the soft-spoken, compassionate Shapiro might embody the Platonic ideal of the college professor, even as he wrestles with his own personal motivations for, as he puts it, indulging his "obsessive-compulsive disorder." He and his students provide "Naturally Obsessed" with a group of exceptionally smart, charismatic protagonists who not only give viewers an inside glimpse of a world too often shrouded in white coats and obscurity, but more than any op-ed article or white paper also advocate brilliantly for unfettered scientific inquiry.

Smart, tightly focused and deeply affecting, "Naturally Obsessed" is an inspiration. As for where the pickle juice fits in, you'll just have to see for yourself.

Naturally Obsessed (60 minutes) will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave. NW (12th Street entrance). Richard and Carole Rifkind will answer questions after the screening. Free admission.

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