Film Review: Dina

by Chris Piper on October 20, 2017

Love, across the spectrum

Dina and Scott do the wedding cake thing.

There are a few times in our lives when we as individuals, full of our specific collections of flaws and the fantastic, must navigate our way through life-changing and unforgettable events: school dance, funeral for a family member, wedding. Most of us struggle during these times to balance our individual responses and expressions with the expectations of family and community. The clear-eyed yet wholehearted Dina, opening today, asks us to examine a wedding through the eyes of a groom with autism, and a bride with a “smorgasbord” of neurological issues and an extremely violent romantic past. The film unflinchingly examines the power of our need to believe that love conquers all.

Our story centers on Dina Buno and Scott Levin, two middle-aged people whose lives are intermingling despite the longest of odds. She lives alone in a very modest apartment in a busy intersection of a suburban New Jersey town. He’s a greeter at Walmart, and has never lived away from home. As the film begins, we hear her say that she had “accepted and embraced the single life.” We could easily have heard him say the same. Yet a relationship seems to be flowering. We’re slowly introduced to two people who, it seems, are not quite used to — or believing that they can — enjoy the coupled life, though they try.

In an early scene, they take in a movie, and make the odd comment before the credits roll. Afterward, they trade comments about the film, and part ways with a painfully awkward kiss. She takes the bus back to her apartment to watch Sex and the City, and he to his home with this parents.

In textbook vérité fashion, no narrator offers background information, no side interviews fill in the back story. With each shot, each scene, we learn more about our characters, though labels are not attached to behaviors. In fact, in this world, consisting of homes and support centers and populated almost entirely by people who exhibit traits that observers would tag as “autistic” or “neurotic” or “on the spectrum,” an interesting yet slightly alarming world is created where these behaviors have been normalized.

Yet we know these two are struggling with severe disabilities. We know it beforehand, and we definitely see it in scene after scene where the couple struggle not only with wedding preparations, but simply just to relate to one another in the moment. What emerges is a portrait of a relationship the dynamics of which resemble two actors trying desperately to act their parts. Moments of genuine emotion are always undermined by erratic or even sociopathic behavior. Dina desperately wants Scott to behave like a normal partner. He seems to have a genuine desire to want to be that for her, but simply does not have that mental ability. So time and time again he offers her what he thinks she wants. He seems always to be one level removed from genuine emotion.

Before the wedding, the couple travel to the seaside, which is the first time Scott has ever seen the ocean. They frolic very tentatively in the sand. She frets about how she looks in her swimsuit. He tries gamely to reassure her. They stroll on the boardwalk, and stop at a bench. She offers him a gift – which is The Joy of Sex. We know she has had past partners, and conclude he’s a virgin. As she shows him picture after picture of sexual positions, she tries to offer him a preview of what their sexual life might be like, while also warning him of her boundaries and trying to gauge whether he’s at all interested. He’s mostly dumbstruck, but after some prodding does admit that he regularly masturbates. It’s an extraordinary scene, which starkly illustrates the looming hill they must climb together, and also reveals the ongoing chasm between male and female attitudes to sex.

As the wedding approaches, we’re subjected to bachelor and bachelorette parties. His begins as a party around a pool table, but quickly devolves into a sex pep talk. Hers is an unforgettable scene with a male stripper and a gaggle of her friends, many of whom have neurological issues of their own.

In these, as well as the scenes of the wedding and of a honeymoon that redefines “awkward”, we’re reminded of the gut wrenching chain reaction collision of events that surround a wedding with so many expectations, and from which few, especially these two, come away unscathed.

The co-director, co-producer team of Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles have opted to shape their documentary into a romantic comedy of a sort, with the struggles of life for these two, rather than some fictional artifice being the barrier they must overcome. The result works very well emotionally, but I still wanted more information about Dina and Scott’s background. Sickles has spent his life around the world of the “neuro-diverse, or neuro-divergent”, and has known Dina his whole life. Giving us a bit more of a traditional back story would have increased, rather than taken away from the story of their relationship.

Dina tells the story of extraordinarily challenged people trying to navigate an event that even for the most “normal” of us is very challenging. It doesn’t bolster our faith in relationships, so much as it details, in a sometimes oddly effective fashion, just how strongly we long to believe in the healing power of love.

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Dina opens today exclusively at Landmark’s Opera Plaza.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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