Thursday 19 October 2017

Two-story love song: "Dina"

There aren't many documentaries that open with fully two-and-a-half minutes of routine dental surgery, but then there aren't all that many docs like Dina. The winner of this year's Sundance Grand Jury prize is a love story, which would already ensure it stood out from its generally doomy and pessimistic field, and furthermore a romance involving two pretty special individuals: Pennsylvanians Dina Buno and Scott Levin, fortysomethings on the Asperger's spectrum, caught by directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini going through their daily routines in the run-up to a big day - their upcoming wedding ceremony. As befits a film about lovebirds, everything speaks to an intimacy, not just that between the subjects, but between filmmakers and subjects, and between the film and its audience. It isn't just that we see Dina and Scott snuggling on the sofa, turning in at night, and getting dressed again in the morning; the film itself has been composed in a close, near-Academy ratio that aligns it with the video diaries and photo albums of yore, and squares comfortably with footage of Dina's first wedding, back when she was a glamorous twentysomething blonde.

What Sickles and Santini cling to are those moments that wouldn't ordinarily be preserved in any format: Dina sorting her underwear drawers, or kicking back in front of a Sex and the City re-run, Scott waiting to order a pizza at their local parlour, or listening to his music on a crosstown bus. (In its offbeat emphasis on downtime, Dina recalls that earlier Sundance sensation American Splendor: these square frames could equally be Harvey Pekar panels.) Their relationship is, in many ways, a model of simplicity - no bust-ups, no gameplaying, no meltdowns. The SATC episode prompts Dina to extol the joys of the footrub, whereupon Scott duly obliges, and finds himself being rewarded with a peck on the lips. She buys him a copy of The Joy of Sex, possibly more for her benefit than his. ("I've been around," she flatly states, to which he altogether touchingly replies: "I could learn.") Here, Sickles and Santini capture a ripple of tension passing between the two: Dina is concerned the inexperienced Scott would rather spend his nights in bed reading Yet even this discrepancy in life experience poses no obstacle to their future happiness, and the film's outlook proves so sunny it can't fail to warm on some level: its roseate Americana - clear blue skies, bowling alleys, Pete Seeger-ish guitar strums through The Battle Hymn of the Republic - evidently struck a chord with the Sundance voters, this of all years. (A coda finds Dina and Scott out hiking in the run-up to last November's Presidential election: let's just say neither is a fan of the current incumbent.)

Although Scott chances upon TV reportage of the Paris terror attacks, we seem far removed from that particular news cycle - the soundtrack's signature cue isn't Scott's beloved "Before the Next Teardrop Falls", but The Seekers' "A World of Our Own" - with only a late revelation, via a horrifying telephone call, of just what Dina has survived to get this second shot at marital bliss. Such a small-scale, quotidian story needed careful handling to engage the viewer while protecting Dina and Scott from any exploitation, and it gets it. Throughout, the camera is locked off and left to run in the corners of the room, presumably so as not to spook its jittery subjects, and this directorial restraint serves to allow Dina and Scott greater space and dignity, granting them the agency to shape their own conversations and lives while guiding the film's generous, open-minded editorial line. The result may strike some, not least the Kardashian-savvy Dina, as a purer form of reality television, one removed of any cynical gloss or guile - it may be the only pop-cultural artefact in existence to invoke Richard Marx's 1989 hit "Right Here Waiting" without a flicker of snickering irony - but you can also see Dina being claimed as an empowering film on the subject of mental illness. And if there happened to be any bruised romantics out there who just wanted a reminder there truly is someone for everybody, well: don't look any further.

Dina opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

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