Each scene in Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s documentary Dina observes the titular character through an unobtrusive, static camera view as if it’s buried within the textured walls or hidden behind glass. This passive approach allows for some honest banter between Dina and whomever she shares the screen with….. banter that includes her nervousness during dentist visits, the proper way to rub her feet or her not-so-subtle curiosity about dominatrix and S&M outerwear.
Combine these somewhat frank conversations with the persona of Dina, a woman who struggles with autism, and her equally mentally handicapped fiance Scott, and Dina could be a film that invites uncomfortable laughter at its subjects. It avoids this avenue, thankfully. However, it doesn’t inspire too much depth or insight, either.
After an opening that takes the audience a bit to realize this is not scripted but real life, the topic of sex often comes up between the couple because they’re on the precipice of marriage. In spite of living seemingly simple lives — he an associate at Wal-Mart and she on financial support — Dina and Scott become increasingly not simple as the big wedding day looms.
Scott seems to suffer from the effects of autism more specifically than Dina. The way he nods and says “yes” to most things she throws at him in conversation hints of a personality unable to fully emote responses to the more full-bodied thought process of Dina. When the revelation that Dina has been married before in a relationship that ended in horrific violence (and features a 911 call tape that halts the film in its tracks to reveal a larger story that may be more interesting), the point that Dina will always be the dominant one in the marriage is solidified.
As the couple lay out all their innermost fears and thoughts before us, the biggest discussion point between the two seems to mimic those of any other functioning couple as they yearn for a symbiotic relationship. There are problems of sexual intimacy, mostly on Scott’s part, that cause Dina to have one of the film’s biggest emotional moments with a fellow autistic couple at a putt-putt course. She laments his indifference to cuddling or breaking away from her whenever they touch. If there’s one scene that induces laughter at the expense of Dina, it’s this loopy moment of life washing over her among the juvenile artificiality of a mini golf course and its spinning castle wheels in the background. That Scott can obviously hear the outburst, and chooses to keep playing behind her, only cements the somewhat farcical nature of the scene.
Yet for all its heedful walking of a fine line between unexpected humor and genuine character excavation, filmmakers Santini and Sickles slyly push the story in different directions without ever fully committing to them. What ends up happening with the seductive lingerie Dina buys in an S&M shop? Why is Scott so forthcoming with strangers on the bus but reluctant to allow Dina inside his head? And, most importantly, what is Dina and Scott’s relationship with the camera and is their existence predetermined or forced in any way?
The camera is at a safe resolve from them, yes, and it does allow for that honesty mentioned in the beginning, but it also creates a safe distance that diminishes any lasting impact. Dina and Scott are nothing more than fish in a bowl, carefully edited into miniature versions of real people whose lives may be quickly forgotten. They deserve better.
Dina opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 20 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.