DINA, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts,
In its opening minutes, flirts with boring you out of your seat before the (fairly drawn out) opening credits are done. But stick around. Bit by bit, as this documentary reveals the nature of its story and the characters of its protagonists, it pulls you in.
It’s the love story of two middle-aged people with developmental issues. Dina Buno is somewhere in her late forties, with borderline Asperger’s and a touch of autism, and, as her mother remarks, a “smorgasbord” of related problems. She’s also got a history strewn with trauma, including an early widowhood and a terrible incident of violence. Very little of this is baldly spelled out; it’s teased along with dropped clues until the big reveals.
But Dina’s life has taken an upward turn with her engagement to Scott Levin, a good-natured fellow probably a few years her junior who works at Wal-Mart. Scott has his own similar cocktail of mental challenges. Early in the film, he moves in with Dina and takes her home to meet his folks. He’s never lived away from home. She’s had boyfriends since her husband died, but nothing permanent. This is a big step for both of them, as it would be for anyone, and a major issue soon rears its head. Dina would like some sexual passion to help fulfill their relationship. Scott’s autism has the effect of making him uncomfortable with intimacy. He’s fine with a hug and a peck on the lips and an “I love you,” but there’s no impulse to take it further.
They are both intelligent and appealing, and both are keenly aware of their circumstances and limitations. When Dina expresses her frustrations, Scott nods sympathetically and says, “I know, you’re right, I’ll try to do better.”
The filmmakers’ connection to this couple comes through co-director Dan Sickles, who has known Dina all his life. That closeness provides an unusual access, as the camera finds its way into their bedroom and into the honeymoon suite. It’s almost too intrusive, and there are times when we may wish they hadn’t brought us along. And there are a few scenes, including one in which she makes him a present of a sex manual, that smack of being staged, or perhaps recreated from incidents that really happened.
This Sundance grand jury prize-winning love story is ultimately affecting and illuminating, and it delivers powerful moments, topped by a mesmerizing scene in which a shocking bit of history is revealed against the backdrop of the film’s most arresting visual. There’s also plenty of humor. Dina and Scott have their problems, but they probably have as good a chance at finding solutions as most people do. — Jonathan Richards