Forget about Ross and Rachel. Bid adieu to Jim and Pam. A pair of lovestruck forty-somethings living just outside of Philadelphia are redefining the modern rom-com.
Scott Levin and Dina Buno are the focus of the endearing new documentary “Dina,” a true-life love story that’s been flooring film critics for months and even scored the coveted Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
An offbeat comedy, with threads of subtle, poignant drama, “Dina” is already an art-house darling. It currently holds a perfect, 100 percent score on the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s garnered praise from such publications as IndieWire, Variety and RogerEbert.com.
Directed by filmmaking duo Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini, the former an Upper Dublin High School graduate, “Dina” follows its title character, a neurologically diverse woman with a haunted past, during the weeks leading up to her marriage to Scott, a door greeter at Walmart.
For the average viewer, the love story in “Dina” is both unfamiliar and entirely relatable. True, Dina and Scott are both on the autism spectrum, but the nature of their day-to-day relationship — paying bills at the kitchen table, watching “Sex and the City” curled up on the couch, or taking a day trip to the Jersey shore — is recognizable to anyone. These are the normal doings of any modern American couple.
Making this film, “We were really intrigued by the idea of lending the same space that’s provided for actresses like Anne Hathaway and Emma Stone and Jennifer Aniston; they’ve all starred in romantic comedies,” says Sickles, 29, one half of the filmmaking team Dan&Antonio, who made waves in 2015 with their debut film “Mala Mala.”
“But instead of these actresses that everybody knows, [we’re] lending that space to a middle-aged, sexually empowered, neurodiverse woman living in the suburbs,” he adds. “Characters that we don’t often get to celebrate but who possess an incredible amount of wisdom.”
“Dina,” which began production in 2015, was a labor of love and patience for its four-person film crew. Shot for less than a half-million dollars — a shoestring budget compared to the other Sundance nominees — much of the filmmaking process consisted of capturing rote daily life (roughly 550 hours of it), in search of flashes of beauty or character definition.
It’s following Scott during his morning commute on public transit. It’s shadowing Scott and Dina during visits to their parents’ homes or while they get ready for bed. For every seconds-long shot of the couple watching TV, “there’s three hours of film” that had to be edited down, Sickles says.
Sickles refers to the work of reviewing footage and editing the film as “finding a thousand different needles in ten thousand haystacks, and then putting them together.” The result, though, is a story so charming and so quotable, many reviewers remark that it feels more like good fiction than a traditional documentary.
“It comes up a lot,” Sickles says. “People ask how directed it is or how heavy our hand was in certain scenes. On one hand, I’d love to take credit for a lot of the lines that are said in the film, because they’re brilliant. … But [Dina and Scott] deserve all the credit for where we ended up and all the words that were said.” He adds, “I think it is sort of this philosophy that if you listen well enough and if you’re around well enough, stories will start to unveil themselves.”
But Sickles and Santini were also determined to make a film about neurodiverse characters that stands apart from similarly-focused films: “Rain Man,” or “I Am Sam,” or “The Other Sister,” etc. For Sickles, so many of these movies are too “reductive, and very patronizing, and very cutesy.”
“Something [‘Dina’] is working to do is to normalize [Dina and Scott’s] condition in a way that acknowledges it, but not in a way that sets them as Other,” he explains. “For me, Scott and Dina are a new kind of contemporary iconic couple. Dina is us. Scott is us. They have these differences, as we all do.”
He adds, “We need to acknowledge that the history of autism is complicated, and, in the early ’80s, [Dina] didn’t have this diagnosis. There was no Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s still in the midst of its evolution. We don’t have diagnoses for people who are selfish or people who are inconsiderate, but we have this set of behavior that is called this particular thing [autism]. And it frames people’s identities in a way that is a bit too abstracting.”
Though “Dina” is his most recent project, Sickles’ relationship with the subject matter — including the film’s title character — has roots in his adolescence. The director’s father, Ed Sickles, who passed away in 2013, was a special education teacher in area school districts, including Hatboro-Horsham and Abington. Ed was even Dina’s teacher during the late ’80s, and remained in her life beyond high school, becoming something of a mentor to her.
“Their relationship evolved kind of past school,” Sickles says of his father and Dina. “He kind of became a paternal figure for her. Like, taught her how to write checks and ride the bus and all of those logistical things that eventually, at some point, you have to teach your kid. So they’d always been very close. And she’s always been a part of my life.”
Like some long and labored-over eulogy, “Dina” was created because of, and in many ways for, Ed Sickles. In fact, it was at Ed’s funeral that Dina and Sickles reconnected. From there, the idea for a film started taking shape.
“It was an opportunity to really investigate and concretize and put into another form this legacy that my father had left behind,” Sickles says. “Something that I think is the invisible spectre over the entire film is me and Dina grappling together with the loss of my dad.”
Dina’s comfort in front of the camera, and candor throughout the film, in part stems from this connection to Sickles. The director is not merely some documentarian who entered her life at random — he’s a friend, as close as family. And he’s a partner in grief.
“Dina’s strength, I think some of it comes from her relationship with [Ed],” Sickles says. As for the director himself, “I was raised to not necessarily — and I think this is in the film — to not really baby or patronize neurodiverse people, but to treat them as complicated, whole adults.”
Indeed, the complexities of Dina’s personality are revealed gradually throughout the film, with the most shocking reveal saved for the finale, which details a grisly experience from her past. It’s a sobering revelation that adds dimension to an already captivating character. For the viewer, Dina becomes not only vivacious and endearing — she becomes downright remarkable.
“Here’s the gravity of what she’s actually experienced,” Sickles says of the sequence, which involves harrowing audio from a 911 call. “On that call, you don’t hear an autistic person pleading for their life, but you hear a human being struggling to survive. Struggling to breathe. To me, that’s a moment where, if you haven’t figured it out by now, [you understand]. Dina is us. Dina is complicated and whole and fascinating and beautiful and strong. And this is your opportunity to really understand that.”
“Dina” premieres at the Ritz at the Bourse in Old City on Friday, Oct. 13. It screens at The Ambler Theater starting Thursday, Oct. 12.