Non-autistic people are fascinated by autistic people’s relationships—romantic relationships especially. As an autistic woman who has been in a relationship with an autistic man for eleven years (six of these as a legally married couple), I know too well that autistic relationships are oftentimes perceived by non-autistics as inspirational at best, and freakish at worst. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I began watching Dina, a documentary film about autistic couple Dina Bruno and Scott Levin, which opens October 6th. Yet despite my reservations, Dina turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable take on autistic love.
The movie’s opening seemed to confirm my worst fears. The film deliberately takes a minimalist approach as it follows Dina going about her life in Philadelphia. I couldn’t help but think to myself: Does the world really need this? I suppose some non-autistic people might be fascinated by the sight of an autistic woman doing everyday things—a dental procedure, re-arranging furniture in her apartment, going on a lunch-and-movie date. But I hardly found it riveting. I worried that the entire premise might veer too close to the dreaded trend of treating autistic lives as zoo exhibits. Yes, neurotypical people: We autistic people watch bad reality TV. We date. We even—gasp—have an interest in sex.
And yet as the film progressed, I found myself increasingly invested in Dina and Scott’s story. Media that focuses on autistic women is still scarce, so I very much appreciated the choice to follow the relationship through Dina’s eyes, even if some scenes of her everyday life seemed to veer on voyeuristic. (Did we really need to see her changing in and out of a bra? Really?!)
Viewers gradually learn that Dina, now in her 40s, has experienced considerable hardships. Her first husband died of cancer, and a previous boyfriend attacked her violently. “A lot of people said I was supposed to be dead,” Dina tells her mother in one scene. “I think I have this amazing strength in me.”
In that, Dina is quite correct. Although I instinctively rebel against the disabled-person-as-inspiration trope, one can’t help but be moved by Dina’s willingness to try for love again, despite everything she has experienced.
As the story of Dina and Scott’s engagement and wedding unfolded, I found myself appreciating the documentary’s hands-off style. Instead of trying to deluge the viewer with generalized information on autism people and relationships, Dina’s filmmakers kept it simple: showing us two autistic people, trying to make it work.
Dina and Scott’s relationship is portrayed with refreshing realism. Although the two clearly love one another, they struggle with different expectations for sexual intimacy. Dina prefers more intimacy and touching, while Scott seems less comfortable with it. Sometimes the film’s documentation of this conflict gets a little uncomfortable, such as when Dina gives Scott a copy of The Joy of Sex while they’re on an Ocean City boardwalk. Still, this is a real issue that many autistic people face in relationships, so I appreciate the film being willing to handle it honestly.
Other issues that autistic couples face were also acknowledged. Scott and Dina are both low-income—he works at WalMart, she receives disability payments. And Scott, who is younger than Dina, has no experience living independently. That’s part of their lives. Still, they go through the rituals of American weddings with aplomb: the engagement party, the pre-wedding manicure, and even a bachelorette party featuring a male lap dancer. It’s not revolutionary, but still refreshing to see autistic people participate in these activities.
My favorite moment was one that demonstrated the non-conventional wonderfulness of autistic love. While the couple went on a mini golf date with another couple, Dina rants that Scott doesn’t display affection to her in the ways she wanted. This was especially tough, she said, because as a disabled person she is used to being rejected. When the couple arrives back at home, Scott communicates his affection for her by playing Dina’s favorite song on his phone: Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting for You. Cheesiness of the song aside, this was an incredibly moving moment that demonstrates the immense possibilities of autistic love.
I do have quibbles: Some of the more mundane moments could have been cut, or at least shortened. There was no need for this movie to run one hour and forty minutes. And there were a few moments of obvious ableism. I didn’t like the patronizing attitude Dina’s mother displayed at times. During their pre-wedding mani-pedis, Dina’s mother condescendingly explained Dina’s disabilities to the manicurists. Then, she gave Dina the silent treatment after Dina became stressed out and flapped her hands. Seemingly, her mother was unaware that it was she and not Dina who was acting rude and making a scene needlessly.
Although I yearn for the day when the stories of real autistic people in love are so commonplace that such documentaries don’t need to exist, overall Dina is an honest and refreshing take on the subject. I’d recommend watching it for a feel-good experience.
Content warning: Towards the end of the movie, there is an audio recording of intense, real life domestic violence.