Camilla Dickinson

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Camilla Dickinson Movie Poster Image
Earnest, slow drama shows teens dealing with mature themes.
  • NR
  • 2015
  • 117 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Even under the most difficult circumstances, confidence, resourcefulness, and self-respect can provide an individual with a productive, happy life. Promotes strong religious values, finding one's passion, and open communication.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Protagonist learns to forge her own way in life by relying on friendship, spirituality, and openness. By the film's end, she refuses to be a victim or unwilling pawn in the lives of others. Parental units (three sets) are stereotypical and one-dimensional. The white upper-class mom and dad are self-absorbed, cold, thoughtless, snobby, and immature. A struggling alcoholic couple brings misery to the family and is guilty of negligence, mistreatment, and narcissism. The one positive example of parenting is as one-dimensional as the others; in this case, they're hardworking middle-class storekeepers who laugh and are sensitive and compassionate at all times. The only African-American character is a household cook and maid.


An accidental teen death is described. An alcoholic couple engages in a brief violent episode; it's heard but not seen. A woman is treated for an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which occurs off-camera.


A married woman and her lover kiss, embrace, and show passion in front of the woman's teen daughter in several scenes. A boy smooches with a girl in a café. A discussion between two 15-year-old girls is meant to be an initial, tentative discussion of sexuality: "What do you know about sex?" "Do you know what a man looks like undressed?" "Do you think you'll like 'doing it'?" "No man wants a girl he can have easily."


One "hell" and one "damned." An abusive, venomous woman berates her teen children.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Alcohol consumption in numerous scenes. A father orders an alcoholic drink for his underage teen in a restaurant. A married couple is often shown drinking or already drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Camilla Dickinson, based on a lesser-known book by Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), takes place in 1948 New York City and showcases a 15-year-old upper-class girl in the throes of first love and coming of age. Camilla must come to terms with her mother's infidelity, her father's coldness, and the dysfunctional family of her best friend, whose parents are abusive alcoholics and whose charismatic brother is thought to be troubled. Faith in God and an afterlife, for which L'Engle was well-known, play a prominent role in the resolution of the young hero's move from resigned victim to outspoken defender of her self-hood. Though there's no overt sexual activity, Camilla's mother and her lover are careless in their affair, never shielding the vulnerable girl from awareness of it. The alcoholic parents make no attempt to hide their substance abuse from their teens; a moment of violence between the parents is heard. Camilla and her friend have a conversation about sex that is supposedly true to its time but feels naive even for the late 1940s. There are a couple of curses ("hell," "damned"), and a name-calling parent is cruel to her children.

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What's the story?

CAMILLA DICKINSON (Adelaide Clemens) is an only child living with two very dysfunctional parents (Samantha Mathis and Cary Elwes) in 1940s New York City. Her childish, self-absorbed mom is having an affair; her dad is cold, emotionally stunted, and prone to arbitrary, thought-free, but dogmatic decisions. Camilla is caught between the two of them, consistently used as a source for information and then as a messenger to convey their thorny emotions. Camilla's best friend, Louisa, is stuck in a different kind of broken household. Her parents are drunks, mean and negligent; her brother Frank is troubled. When Camilla and Frank connect, things begin looking up for the struggling girl. Of course, the snobbish Dickinsons disapprove and threaten Camilla with dire consequences. To make matters worse, Luisa feels threatened by what she sees as Camilla's abandonment. But Camilla is made of sturdy stuff. Developing a sense of her own independence because of her new relationship -- and calling upon her deeply held religious beliefs, as well as her passion for science -- Camilla is able to transcend the despair forced upon her by those she cares about.

Is it any good?

The basic disconnect between two sets of parents and their teen children is at the heart of this slow-moving, mostly humorless drama that will have little resonance for today's kids. Three sets of parents are portrayed, all as one-note entities: the cold, narcissistic, immature couple; the alcoholic, abusive parents; and, finally, a mom and dad who, though they've lost their only child to an accident, are ever-smiling, ever-understanding, and head-over-heels in love with each other. It's no wonder that the three teen protagonists are baffled by their lives and what is expected of them. Note that Madeleine L'Engle is credited as one of the screenwriters, as is the director. The result is a well-meaning effort to bring a dated, unsubtle, and spiritually simplistic story to modern young audiences. On the plus side, the film has strong production values: set design, costumes, editing, and a wonderful performance by Colby Minifie as Luisa. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the lack of communication in both families depicted here. If this is an accurate representation of at least some families in the 1940s, how have things changed? 

  • What, if anything, do Camilla, Luisa, and Frank have in common with the teens of today? Do you identify with any of them? If yes, which one, and why?

  • How does the Rowan parents' alcoholism affect their children? What resources might Luisa and Frank have today if they were in a similar situation?

Movie details

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For kids who love dramas

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