“Camilla Dickinson” is a film adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult novel “Camilla,” which takes place in the 1940’s after World War I, and tells the story of fifteen-year-old Camilla (Adelaide Clemens) discovering her parents and best friend Luisa (Colby Minifie) are flawed human beings while also finding a kindred spirit in Luisa’s brother, Frank (Gregg Sulkin). Being the avid read-the-book-first sort of person I am, and given how much I’ve enjoyed what other books of L’Engle’s I’ve read over the years, it’s rather embarrassing to admit that I had no idea the book existed until I got the review copy of the movie.
I’m sure you’ll forgive me.
Strictly movie speaking, I think this was supposed to be a coming-of-age film, but it turned into more a documentary of Adelaide Clemens facial expressions. How many times does she try to speak and fail? How pinched or teary-eyed can she get while her mother whines about needing more affection than her husband gives her? How awkwardly can she fidget while her father asks how often this greasy Frenchman comes to their apartment to see her (Non-spoiler: he’s not coming to see Camilla and everyone knows it). How long can she keep this nervous-happy curl of her lips every time she’s around Frank?
Now, it’s good that she can emote like that. I appreciated that I could see and infer some of her inner monologue. It helped sell her as a self-conscious, sheltered rich girl. It also provided a nice juxtaposition to the times when she speaks up and gives her opinion, or how her face lights up when she talks about being an astronomer. I thought she and Frank shared their scenes quite well, both of them shy around each other, trying to be themselves while struggling with trusting the other person enough to do it. It quite differs from scenes with Camilla and Luisa, where Luisa dominates the situation and constantly poke, prods, and picks at her friend when she wants to know something. Frank always waits. He doesn’t rush, which is why Camilla feels safe enough around him to open up.
While Camilla values the different relationships she has with the Rowen kids, and her interactions with each stretch her toward recognizing herself as an individual person in a confusing world, the dynamic between her and her parents, and the tension between them, stretches her the other way, toward stoic closure.
Bluntly, I disliked her mother, Rose (Samantha Mathis), more than her father, Rafferty (Cary Elwes). Neither of them are balanced individuals. Rose grew up beautiful and most likely sees it as her only redeeming quality; she is used to being fawned over, both by men and her daughter, but as she grows older and her beauty fades, she has become increasingly co-dependent, clinging more and more to Camilla and Rafferty for affirmation that she’s loved, only to have each of them withdraw because she smothers them. The more she feels unloved, the more she interacts with aforementioned greasy Frenchman, Jacques (Salvator Xuereb).
Rafferty, though, maybe have been an ice king from the get-go. He’s portrayed as a mountain of a man (in aura, not in literal size) with a savvy business mind and great intelligence. He most likely married Rose because she was so lovely, and then found her to be rather silly. Over the years he seems to have withdrawn from her, not because she’s growing older, but because in her co-dependency, she accuses him of not caring enough, or not paying enough attention to her, et cetera. This may be true to a degree, but not nearly the degree that Rose claims. Raff is a little awkward toward his daughter, and rather domineering, but I believe both are a result of Camilla growing up and away from the family unit, and he inwardly needs the same sort of affirmation and stability Rose is so vocal about. His issue is that he makes decisions that alienate both wife and daughter and somehow doesn’t seem to see it’s a problem.
The greatest redeeming factor in “Camilla Dickinson” is the Stephanowski’s (Robert Picardo and Camryn Manheim). They’ve suffered a huge loss, and yet they don’t isolate themselves from each other. In fact, they border on nearly too perfect: it’s the suffering they’ve endured that evenly balances their seeming infatuation with each other. They’re the couple that Rose and Rafferty could learn from, the couple that helps Camilla see what marriage could be like, and the couple that embodies nearly every 1940’s stereotype for happiness. I watched them and both disbelieved what I saw (“no one is like that, ever”) and yet envied them. They stole the scene every time they entered frame.
As far as adaptations go, “Camilla Dickinson” is a shadow of “Camilla” the novel, though it gives Camilla a more active role in her development than the book does. It holds its own and delivers its own message: in a culture where women are viewed as homemakers or trophy wives, girls can be who they want to be, can form their own opinions, can stand up to their mothers and fathers, and can learn to forgive. Camilla is representative of the cliché misunderstood teen who just wants to escape a bad situation and is accused of associating with bad influences, when the bad influences are actually her parents. Yet she can still overcome her mother’s co-dependency and her father’s stone-walling when she allows herself to trust people she barely knows and gets to see another way to live.