DINA: A Graceful Roadmap For The Rom Com Genre
An Oscar worthy documentary, Dina is an entertaining film unique in its portrayal of the people behind the autism label.
We don’t know how to talk about people with autism. In part, because it’s a diagnosis both underrepresented and misrepresented in mainstream media. Popular representations usually depict autism as either a series of awkward physical tics or as a superpower that lends a person heightened senses. Strong, nuanced portrayals of autism are basically non-existent. Dina, the new documentary from Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles about a couple with autism, is a welcome feature to the autism canon that takes an observational approach, avoiding a forced narrative about the diagnosis.
The film follows Dina and Scott, two middle-aged people with autism who are engaged to be married. Dina plays out with the traditional trajectory of a romantic comedy, but is framed through static cinematography and driven by the titular character’s wonderful sense of humor as well as the inadvertent comedy and drama of everyday life. It’s a weird alchemy of Yasujiro Ozu’s family comedies and something like Schultze Gets The Blues.
The two go about their daily life while we watch. Scott goes to his job at Wal-Mart, Dina has lunch dates with her mother, the couple go on day-trips together, they watch Sex And The City, visit Scott’s parents, etc. We’re just watching their mundane routines. And then they get married.
Dina and the Rom Com Formula
Because I had heard Dina referred to as a romantic comedy in documentary form, I wondered how the film would construct conflict. The traditional romantic comedy formula requires a tumultuous second act, where the couple have to navigate a conflict that tests the strength of their relationship. I wasn’t sure how Dina was going to convincingly approach this necessary hurdle, or if they would eschew it altogether. But then Dina approaches Scott about their nonexistent sexual connection. She starts by broaching the subject subtly, by purchasing Scott The Joy of Sex. She knows Scott’s lack of physical initiative comes from basic inexperience, so she’s trying to gently educate him.
This is the beauty of Dina — watching them communicate, both together and with their friends and family. They’re impulsively honest, and when the two of them talk about their sexuality, not only are they honest, but they’re graceful with each other. They’re trying to figure out how to be better for one another, and the compassion they lend each other is bound to be the most heartening thing found in a movie this year.
Not only does this ongoing conflict allow Dina to seamlessly adhere to the rom com formula we’re familiar with, but it actually ends up being a refined roadmap for the rom com genre. The central conflict shouldn’t be a rote hurdle for screenwriters to find a way over, but rather a natural problem that attempts to usher growth and a deeper understanding of each other.
Not a Film About Autism
Just being able to watch this communication between Dina and Scott is a great example of a film showing a neurotypical audience something about autism without being didactic about the entirety of the diagnosis. This is a testament to Santini and Sickles’ observational approach. For the better part of seven years, I had the opportunity to work with people who share Dina and Scott’s diagnosis.
During orientation for one of the agencies I worked for, a speaker stressed that their clients aren’t autistic, but that they have autism. This small semantical difference was an easy way to respect this population as something more than their diagnosis. Autism isn’t their dominant identifier, and we should act accordingly. Through its observationalism, Dina tacitly reaffirms this belief. The film isn’t about autism, but about two people with autism who are in love.
Dina is also quite funny in its observations. There aren’t any punchlines, but there’s an overwhelming joy to be had from scenes like watching Scott run across the Wal-Mart parking lot before and after work. And there’s plenty of laughs born out of awkward social situations — a symptom of the subjects’ impulsive honesty. Santini and Sickles are also interested in the humor of mundanity. Some of the funniest stuff in Dina is just watching her and Scott watch TV.
Going into a film like this, I have skepticism, a fear that it might veer off into fetishization, patronizing its subjects for pity or laughter. But Dina is too interested in the distinct agency of Dina and Scott — it cares too much about who they are as individuals to undermine that with condescending messages about autism. At its most base level, Dina works because it offers me a chance to spend time with people who understand the world differently than I do, not because it teaches me a lesson about their diagnosis.
For Your Consideration: Dina
Last year’s documentary about a child with autism, Life, Animated, was a very surface-level look at some of the proclivities of this population. That film got an Oscar nomination despite being much more than a glorified orientation video or Dateline segment. I would love to see Dina get a similar reception from the AMPAS during the upcoming awards season. That we don’t need to foreground autism in representations of people with that diagnosis is a message that could use some heightened awareness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dina has a major fly in the ointment. In the final act, Dina and Scott are sitting on a bench discussing their problems with physical intimacy. Frustrated, Dina can’t help but doubt whether he actually likes her or not. With touching conviction, Scott tells her how strong of a person he thinks she is. He brings up an incident from Dina’s past, when her first husband stabbed her multiple times before calling 9-1-1.
Scott can’t believe she made it through such a devastating experience. The couple walk out of frame, and while the camera stays on the bench, the actual audio of that 9-1-1 call plays in its entirety. It’s a very bewildering and distasteful move that drastically changes the film’s tone for no discernible reason. Thankfully, this moment is overshadowed by the rest of the film’s beauty.
Did you find Dina as charming as I did? Let me know in the comments.
Dina is currently in select theaters in both the US and UK, for the release dates in your country see here.
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