Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’s Dina is a documentary that, at least for a while, is indistinguishable from an indie dramedy. Early scenes capture the title character in medium shots full of empty white walls as she performs everyday tasks and errands: Dina gets dressed, goes to the dentist, and visits a salon. Slightly twee snippets of music (including an original song by Michael Cera) stitch some of these scenes together, adding to the atmosphere of mundane artifice. Dina never resorts to the expository titles or interviews that might announce the film as a work of nonfiction, but we come to understand the camera’s distance from its subjects as an act of respect that allows the complex, funny, and indomitable personalities to shine through.
Dina has Aspergers, along with a handful of additional mental disabilities, but she’s undoubtedly an independent woman, having lived alone in the suburbs of Philadelphia for 20 years. As the film begins, that run is about to end: Dina, who at 49 has survived the death of her husband and a series of scarring relationships, is about to remarry. She talks about both her challenging past and the excitement of new love with equal candor, presenting herself as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Dina’s free-spirited confidence is infectious, but her fiancé, Scott, who also has Aspergers, finds it difficult to match.
Throughout the film, we come to understand the camera’s distance from its subjects as an act of respect.
The film is framed around the early days of Dina and Scott’s cohabitation, as they’re forced to sort through issues they’ve avoided until now, namely sex and other forms of intimacy. Like Dina, Scott is verbally affectionate, but he’s evidently uncomfortable with physical contact, always deeply invested in his smartphone as Dina prepares for bed and hopes to snuggle. There’s lots of tender but ribald comedy in this arrangement—at one point, Dina shows Scott a Sex and the City episode in order to coax him into a foot rub—but what’s most impressive about the film is how it homes in on this theme just as it paints a detailed portrait of how Scott and Dina go about their days. Their reliance on public transportation is a recurring theme, and the villain of one of their most challenging expeditions: a day trip that culminates with Dina reading from The Joy of Sex to Scott on a public bench. Such shifts in setting help to smooth over some repetitive motifs and conversations, incorporating brief but valuable sketches of Dina and Scott’s parents into the film.
Dina is unafraid to discuss Scott’s emotional shortcomings with him or others, and the film make it clear that Dina views their differences in relation to a past that’s marked by sexually adventurous and occasionally violent partners. With one striking departure from the film’s straightforward, consistent mode of presentation, Dina’s struggles and the marvel of her perseverance and hope become abundantly clear. In its non-judgmental, unfailingly empathetic presentation, the film presents new love as a rare opportunity for personal growth that’s well worth any amount of emotional labor.