The first time you see Dina Buno’s back, you might not notice the scars. She is changing clothes in what looks to be a little girl’s bedroom, but is actually her own. It’s an awkward moment to begin with, surprisingly intimate to appear so early in a film about a 49-year-old woman determined to overcome mental disability and past trauma to embark upon a new romance. One might even go so far as to ask whether “Dina” co-directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles have the right to reveal her so exposed, and yet those scars hold the key to understanding who Dina is.
The winner of the U.S. documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, “Dina” doesn’t feel like other nonfiction films. There’s none of that wobbly-camera footage to signify how authentic, or vérité, everything is — instead, artfully desaturated, static shots unfold at a slight remove, like panels of “The Far Side” comic strip — while the rapport between the filmmakers and their principal characters is so comfortable, it occasionally feels as if we are watching a scripted film .
But if Santini and Sickles’ aim was to capture the truth of Dina’s experience — and more specifically, to share their damaged protagonist’s attempt at a fresh start — then they’ve chosen precisely the right approach to the material. The co-directors (who previously turned their empathetic eye toward a group of Puerto Rican trans women in “Mala Mala”) are dedicated to bridging the difference gap that sets their subjects apart from the mainstream, which in this case means treating people with mental disabilities the way a Hollywood melodrama might a traditional couple.
Dina and boyfriend Scott Levin have already decided to get married when the film begins, but their relationship is complicated by their respective conditions. Scott has Asperger Syndrome, and though he’s clearly devoted to Dina, he must be constantly reminded of her needs, from holding hands to even the most basic of sex play. Dina, on the other hand, has had considerably more experience in that department, but is packing a full quiver of mental disabilities. “It’s like a smorgasbord,” her mother says at one point. Add to that the physical and emotional scarring of past relationships (Dina outlived her first husband, and nearly died at the hands of her previous boyfriend) and it’s easy to understand any hesitations she might have about getting remarried.
The connection they share isn’t the kind that would pass for conventionally romantic, and yet, theirs is a compelling love story all the same — one the filmmakers follow with open minds, focusing on the lead-up to and days immediately following their wedding. They’re present the day Scott moves in to Dina’s place (a modest apartment located above a suburban Philadelphia shipping company), and remarkably enough, they’re comfortable enough with the crew that cameras are rolling when they go to bed: Scott sleeps on top of the covers, his back turned to Dina, while she tries to make herself comfortable on her side of the bed.
This chaste arrangement suggests the trouble that lies ahead for the couple: Dina is patient, but longs for passion, while Scott — who admits to pleasuring himself, but doesn’t seem to crave the same sensation from his wife — seems overwhelmed by her expectations. While hardly unique to his condition, his naïve anxiety lends a pathetically cute quality to scenes like the one in which Dina presents Scott with a copy of “The Joy of Sex,” trying to raise such topics as they page through the book together. The odd tone even extends to the score, a mix of humming and guitar strumming supplied by actor Michael Cera.
Traditional movies about mentally challenged couples — like Garry Marshall’s godawful “The Other Sister” — tend to get hung up on the subject of whether “special” people should be permitted to have sex, but “Dina” goes deeper, focusing on the complications its characters face when trying to find the balance in their relationship. It also embraces what’s inherently humorous about this situation, laughing alongside Dina and Scott when the situation calls for it, which serves to make the tender moments all the more poignant.
It helps that Sickles has known Dina his entire life (his father founded a group called the Aktion Club for adults with disabilities, of which she was a member), making for an extremely comfortable rapport between the co-directors and their subjects. But neither this nor the couple’s mostly-repetitive routine can quite explain how their fixed cameras manage to anticipate certain events: For example, during a date at the local megaplex, they film Dina and Scott in their seats while a nearby stranger checks her cellphone, or after a bus trip to Ocean Park, N.J., two cameras cover the bench on which Dina decides to have “the sex talk.”
Even so, such manipulation seems perfectly innocuous — set up to ensure that audiences can share in moments that might traditionally be deemed private. But there is one detail that cuts to the bone, revealing how Dina got those back scars, as the filmmakers play the audio of a 911 call over otherwise neutral footage. Serving as a flashback to a devastating case of domestic violence, the recording clarifies in an instant why Scott is such a perfect fit for her now, just as it melts whatever last barrier exists between her and us — the final clue to the riddle that has been her personality all this time.