“I’m nervous of the unexpected,” Dina Buno says to no one in particular as she sits in a dentist’s chair and waits for the drilling to start, but the film that bears her name — a sporadically engaging but hugely empathetic non-fiction portrait — is nothing if not unexpected. For Dina, a suburban Philadelphia resident who lives with what her mom describes as “a smorgasbord” of mental health conditions (Asperger’s being the most evident of the lot), this movie is just another chapter of the life that she’s been living for 48 years. For the rest of us, it’s full of surprises.
Look no further than the strangely moving scene in which a beefy male stripper is hired to dance for Dina and her neurologically diverse group of friends. The guy doesn’t flinch when he walks in the door, he just gets right down to business. All smiles. For us, it’s a moment fraught with potential awkwardness, ripe for exploitation. For him, waving his ass in the air and manhandling the bride-to-be, it’s just another bachelorette party. Just when you thought “Magic Mike XXL” cornered the market on emotionally exultant dry humping.
Directed by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini (“Mala Mala”), “Dina” comes from a deep place of love (Sickles’ dad was one of Dina’s teachers), but it’s a minor miracle that the film sidesteps the number of traps that it sets for itself. Any film about the mentally disabled is a potential minefield of bad ideas, let alone a film that frames its story as an accidental rom-com and plays even its most crushing moments for laughs. It takes a minute for the movie to dispel the idea that it might be scripted — an opening credit sequence that displays the subjects’ names like a traditional cast list deliberately contributes to this confusion — but that’s long enough to imagine Dina as a Kristen Wiig character gone wrong. Throw in the threat of a (pleasantly noodling) score by actor Michael Cera, and things really get dicey. By the time Scott, Dina’s fiancé, announces that he proposed to her in a Red Robin, you can’t help but cringe at the thought that this film might be served up “Napoleon Dynamite” style.
It isn’t. While it does raises a number of uncomfortable questions regarding the lens through which the “neurotypical” world looks at people on the spectrum, “Dina” confronts such delicate topics head-on, wrestling with those bugs until they become features. If what happens on screen is often slack and repetitive, the well-framed footage is consistently fascinating for how it articulates the idea that “we” take it upon ourselves to tell “their” stories. It illustrates the invisible divide that we draw without their consent.
In that regard (and many others) Dina herself is the film’s greatest asset. Functional, vivacious, and outspoken to a degree that can only be measured by the DSM-5, she’s too in control of her own person to be easily exploited. “I have this amazing strength in me,” she insists, and the more we learn about her past dotted with loss and violence, the more her self-description rings true. Despite the movie’s deceptively staged aesthetic, Dina is so clear and candid that it feels as though we’re seeing her life as it really is. The filmmakers certainly seize on their star’s complete disregard for personal boundaries, but the realness of her problems is precisely what stirs our empathy and understanding.
No, “autistic people get horny, too” isn’t the most woke idea in the world, but it’s a valuable one, and Dina is its ideal ambassador. At first, she just seems thirsty as hell (mainlining episodes of “Sex & the City” and proclaiming that she’s a “butt girl”), but as Scott continues to rebuff her advances due to his feelings about human contact, Dina’s desire begins to assume a new dimension. “I’m tired of being rejected,” she shouts on a miniature golf course. “I’ve had disabilities and been rejected my whole life, and when I go to cuddle him he pushes me away and I can’t stand it.”
While obviously shaped by the particular obstacles that Dina faces, it’s crucial that the movie tells a story that could also work without them. Alternately comic and tragic and best when its both at once, “Dina” humanizes a world of people who were only dehumanized because we allowed them to be. It’s never easy, and the film suffers greatly when its scenes aren’t supported by the scaffolding of its rom-com structure, but we need films like this. Whereas most docs about “different” people are content to flatter our empathy, “Dina” aims to deepen it.
“Dina” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.