It seems as though media around autism is on the rise. The BBC’s children’s programming has been focusing primarily on children with autism, and then Roger Ross Williams’s documentary Life, Animated showcased 20-year-olds with autism. Now we have a film that takes place further down the line in Dina, a documentary about older adults with these development disabilities.
The film follows Dina Buno and Scott Levin as they are about to be married. Both of them have issues outside of their obvious disabilities: Dina has plenty of developmental problems, and Scott specifically has Asperger’s syndrome, which keeps him from being more intimate. But they love each other enough to brave the harshest of limitations that many people with less confounding conditions would not be able to brave.
Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles film the couple in their small town during the events leading up to their wedding and the aftermath. The film is incredibly intimate with their lives, focusing closely on every uncomfortable spat, every concerning talk, and every moment of tenderness. Some viewers may find it uncomfortable to listen to them talk about sex with such an unbound frankness with respect to kinks, but it emphasizes their humanity and prevents such thoughts from pooling in the back of the mind. I thought back to Life, Animated and how the brother of someone with autism was worried about his sibling’s comprehension of sex. No worries in this film.
The world of Dina and Scott is both relaxing, quirky, and dramatic. They hold their wedding at a small venue, taking their wedding pictures in front of a restaurant with customers visible from the windows. Scott talks with his family about how committed he is to learning songs and dances for the ceremony. Dina’s small apartment is the setting of a bachelorette party, complete with a male stripper who finds his way around the small space for lap dances. During a minigolf outing, Dina has a breakdown over how Scott can’t be more passionate with her; they have a fight but soon resolve it back in their small apartment, where they share a bed and watch TV. Even vacationing trips to the beach can turn into an open conversation about Dina’s sexual history, but with an understanding between the both of them.
I think it’s important to showcase as much of their private lives as possible when leading up to the darkest revelation of Dina’s past. Heard only through a 911 call, Dina’s former boyfriend calls the police to admit that he has stabbed her multiple times. She can be heard in the background, apologizing for the fight and crying for her mother. There are a few clues in the film before this reveal, seen in closed-door shots of Dina undressing when we see her scars, but it is never outright stated before this point what happened. Until then, we would be forgiven for thinking that Dina and Scott are just trying to cope with their mental conditions to connect romantically. After hearing the call, we understand that they are far more brave than we realized, especially for being on camera.
But the film seems to portray that incident as taking place in another lifetime, considering it hardly comes up in the blunt conversations between its two subjects. There are no candid interviews with them as they share all their secrets and frustrations with both themselves and their families, almost to the point where the audience could be convinced this was a staged production. We learn more about them from watching and absorbing than we ever would from sitting either of them down for a personal one on one. They’re not a typical couple, but they still go through the same motions as most of their small town friends and family. They hold their wedding in a quaint community center of sorts, get their hair done at the local salon, and watch the same TV as most people do. If it weren’t for the traumatic incident and their frank dialogue, they would just be an average couple, warts and all.
What I found most engrossing about Dina is how the film portrays adults with autism in a human light, rather than just an odd and “uplifting” one. Being someone with Asperger’s syndrome myself, I could relate to Scott as someone who is just a little bit too afraid to speak honestly, even with someone he loves deeply. His social abilities are impaired on an emotionally intimate level, but he’s committed to doing the right thing even when he can’t show it as often. He never pulls back on excusing his faults as just a part of himself because Dina is just as much disabled to not only understand, but empathize as well.
Together, they don’t see themselves as two people with similar disabilities who should hook up on that account, nor do their families. They just want to be seen in each other’s eyes as an average couple, even if their mental conditions don’t fit the bill. It can be frustrating—I myself have often unwittingly annoyed others with my tendency to be untalkative and not engaging when it comes to standard responses in conversation. That can lead people to label me an asshole, but if given the choice between being seen as an asshole or as someone with Asperger’s, I’d always choose asshole. And that’s what I find most refreshing about a couple like Dina and Scott: they have advanced far past the point of making people step on eggshells for them, even with such a traumatic experience behind them.
This is the type of story that no Hollywood director would dare produce into a drama. There’s not enough “weirdness” to Dina and Scott for them to be labeled as wholly different from most couples; Dina doesn’t have some nervous twitch that requires her to abruptly exit from talks, and Scott has no strange obsession with a particular area of focus that shuts him out from the rest of the world. They are normal couple with the same joys and stresses that come with any marriage, amplified only slightly by their conditions. This is neither an uplifting nor a negative depiction of autism, and the subject itself rarely become a focus for Dina and Scott themselves. The couple will never be written about as harrowing figures who triumphed over their disabilities and became heroes—but that’s just fine. They’re perfectly comfortable and sated as they are, content to live together with evenings of foot massages and nights when they might not always snuggle. Their tale is something more relatable and profound about simple, human lives.