You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Dina’

Romance blossoms between a mentally challenged couple in Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles' Sundance-winning doc.

Dina Buno, Scott Levin.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6333058/

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.

Film Review: 'Dina'

Reviewed at Cinefamily, Los Angeles, Jan. 17, 2017. Running time: 101 MIN.


(Documentary) A Moxie Pictures presentation of an El Peligro production, in association with Cinereach, Impact Partners, Killer Films. Producers: Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles. Executive producers: Stephanie Choate, Dan Levinson, Robert Fernandez, Christine Vachon. Co-producers: Duncan Way, Louis Le Bayon, Adam Uhl, David Hinojosa.

Crew: Directors: Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles. Camera (color, HD): Adam Uhl. Editor: Sofía Subercaseaux. Music: Michael Cera.

With: Dina Buno, Scott Levin.

More Film

  • Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King) and Bella (Amber)

    China's Bona Film Boards Brad Pitt's 'Ad Astra,' 'A Dog's Way Home' (EXCLUSIVE)

    China’s Bona Film Group is co-financing Brad Pitt space adventure “Ad Astra,” one of several films in a strong slate of international movies the company plans to release in the Middle Kingdom over the next year. Bona has also acquired Roland Emmerich’s war spectacular “Midway” and is investing in “A Dog’s Way Home,” the sequel [...]

  • Aquaman 2018

    Film News Roundup: 'Aquaman' Sets Pre-Sales Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Aquaman” sets a pre-sales record, “Bohemian Rhapsody” hits a milestone, and SAG-AFTRA promotes four executives.  PRE-SALES RECORD “Aquaman” has set a pre-sales record for Atom Tickets, topping “Deadpool 2,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Black Panther.” More Reviews Film Review: 'The Quake' Film Review: Clint Eastwood in 'The Mule' “Clearly, ‘Aquaman’ [...]

  • 'Liga' Kicks Off At Ventana Sur's

    Ventana Sur: 'La Liga' Kicks Off at Buenos Aires' Animation!

    Spain’s Quirino Awards, Argentina’s Animation! and Mexico’s Pixelatl Festival, three key events in Ibero-American animation, will join forces to create La Liga (The League), as announced Wednesday at an Animation! round table hosted by the Quirino Awards, titled “Iberoamerican Alliance Models.” Speakers included Quirino Awards promoter José Luis Farias, Mexico’s Pixelatl director José Iñesta, Gonzalo [...]

  • The Quake Review

    Film Review: 'The Quake'

    Roar Uthaug’s 2015 “The Wave” revived the pleasures of the 1970s disaster-movie cycle in a form that seemed purer than the never-quite-dead genre’s recent Stateside incarnations — most of which seem to involve Dwayne Johnson in a generic pileup of CGI perils. “The Wave” wasn’t high art, but it was entertainment that delivered some standard [...]

  • The Mule trailer

    Film Review: Clint Eastwood in 'The Mule'

    From Dirty Harry to … dirty grandpa, Clint Eastwood certainly has a type of character that he plays best, and “The Mule” finds him squarely in his comfort zone, appearing as a surly old horticulturalist who, at age 90, has become perhaps the most reliable drug runner for the Sinaloa cartel, evading detection for nearly [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content