‘Dina’ Review: Doc Explores Love, Marriage and Autism

Sundance 2017: The directors of “Mala Mala” follow their captivating heroine through wedding prep and love pains without condescension or coddling

When films are made about underrepresented communities, there’s always a danger of jumping into a discussion of how “universal” such stories are. It’s great if white, affluent, heterosexual audiences can respond to the travails of the black, gay, impoverished hero of “Moonlight,” for example, but that empathy shouldn’t obscure discussion of how few similar characters we see in mainstream movies.

The new documentary “Dina” calls this subject to mind because, while it specifically deals with an autistic adult and her impending nuptials, it’s a movie that, in the broadest sense, is about marriage itself. We get lots of films about weddings and about courtship, but this is one that actually takes the time to explore the essence of the marital partnership, and the delicate balance between expressing your own wants and needs while also devoting yourself to fulfilling your partner’s wants and needs.

Viewers who might think they wouldn’t be able to relate to someone like the brassy, plain-spoken 48-year-old Dina may be surprised at just how very, yes, universal her story can be. Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (who previously collaborated on “Mala Mala”) never condescend to or coddle their vivacious leading lady, and the result is a fascinating love story.

We meet Dina — described by her mother as living with a “smorgasbord” of issues, including Asperger syndrome (which falls under the autism umbrella) and anxiety — as she prepares for big changes in her life. Her boyfriend, Scott, who is also autistic, is moving in with her as the two of them, and their families, prepare for the wedding.

As we follow her through the usual errands leading up to the big day — the dress, the manicures, etc. — we get to know Dina and everything she has survived, including the death of her first husband and multiple stab wounds inflicted by a former boyfriend. She and Scott seem genuinely in love, and able to talk each other down when one gets upset, but there’s clearly a physical component missing.

On a day trip to the Jersey shore, Dina presents Scott with a copy of “The Joy of Sex,” and she initiates one of several awkward conversations — and they would be awkward for anybody — about her need for intimacy and Scott’s reticence to touch and hug and kiss her. Like most husbands, Scott has challenges and compromises to face.

As the film follows them on their honeymoon — to a Poconos resort with a martini-glass-shaped bathtub overlooking the living room — “Dina” offers its most powerful moment, playing the post-stabbing 911 call over a shot of the newlyweds sitting on a park bench that disappears into darkness as the sun sets. It’s a scene that could easily have been exploitative of Dina’s grief, but it instead plays like a tribute to her resilience. After that, the directors still deliver one great final shot that suggests that this marriage has a future.

“Dina” never bears the mantle of having to educate its audience about autism. We see that among Dina and Scott’s friends, they deal with varying degrees of their issues. (They range a spectrum from those who can drive to those who are relatively uncommunicative.) There’s never a sense of pity or pathos about the film’s subjects — both Dina and Scott lead complete, fulfilling lives, full of friends and family and activities and favorite TV shows.

Santini and Sickles prove themselves to be very effective flies on the wall here; there are no interviews or voice-overs to tell us what’s happening or how we’re supposed to feel about it. It’s that sense of life unfolding among people we’ve enjoyed getting to know that makes “Dina” so fascinating.