Dina Buno and Scott Levin are 40ish Philadelphians preparing for their wedding and poised to embark on a marriage that’s bound to be filled with its share of joys and challenges. That makes them pretty much like any other couple save one not-so-small thing: Dina and Scott both have Asperger’s Syndrome.
Their rocky road to love and acceptance — of themselves and of each other — is warmly, involvingly captured by filmmakers Daniel Sickles and Antonio Santini in the beguiling documentary “Dina.”
The movie’s vérité style intimately draws us into the plucky, if beleaguered, lives of Dina and Walmart staffer Scott and their relationship’s trials and tribulations, many of which are a result of their disparate levels of autism: The forthright, long-widowed Dina, a lively, tartly good-natured middle-aged woman with a tousled bob that Meg Ryan would envy, seems less acutely affected by her disability than the awkward Scott. She offers an irresistible subject: Funny and forthright, she allows the filmmakers into her apartment and daily life in suburban Philadelphia with startling aplomb.
Although her position on the neurotypical spectrum might partly account for Dina’s appealing lack of guile, she’s anything but childlike or naive, especially when it comes to preparing for her upcoming wedding.
Focusing on the sometimes fraught weeks leading up to the wedding, “Dina” judiciously addresses the events of Dina’s past that led her to this moment, intercutting those revelations with scenes of Dina coping with her own emotional and cognitive difficulties, as well as obstacles faced by Scott, who is preparing to leave his parents’ home for the first time.
Sickles (whose late father was a friend of Dina’s) and Santini effectively reveal their stars’ histories in organic bits and pieces, with a harrowing 911 call from the night of Dina’s near-fatal stabbing in 2010 by a troubled ex-boyfriend adding late-breaking detail.
From the mundane to the eventful, the movie takes a fairly unflinching, yet respectful view of Dina and Scott’s world, which includes family, friends, hobbies, home life, trips, rituals and old Top 40 songs. The newlyweds’ out-of-sync sexuality is handled with poignant candor.
There are moments in “Dina” that invite viewers to wonder whether Santini and Sickles aren’t veering into voyeurism, such as when Dina presents Scott with a copy of “The Joy of Sex” and proceeds to have a conversation about masturbation and other matters. Would we be watching this if it weren’t for the fact that Dina and Scott are on the spectrum? Is there something condescending in packaging their lives as entertainment? (Watch and be amazed as Dina and Scott discuss the 2016 election!) What are the issues of transparency and consent when filmmakers are crossing so many sensitive boundaries with intellectually challenged subjects?
But the film also encourages viewers to check their own assumptions: Why, for example, wouldn’t people as observant and highly functional as Dina and Scott have the ability to consent? Aren’t portraits like these necessary to illuminate lives that are too often marginalized and misunderstood?