SIFF Film Review – White Camellias

Premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival, Cybill Shepherd stars in the new character drama White Camellias. She plays Annie, an artist in her early 60s who has a dreamy view of the world. Constantly romanticizing a time she spent long ago in Spain, Annie is filled with dewy eyed longing and regret. The film takes place over one evening.

The first third of the film shows Annie and her young gay hired assistant, played by David Burtka, preparing for that evening’s dinner party. She is planning on making a big to-do for a large group of friends and hopefully rekindling a romance with a former lover whom she expects to come. But as most of her guests cancel on her, she begins to melt down. But she and David decide to soldier on through the evening. This first portion of the film is somewhat clunky. The dialogue spends a little too much time on exposition. We learn Annie is a painter and all about her past through very obvious questioning by the assistant character. It’s a bit of a clumsy information dump that does more telling than showing in the script.

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Things pick up a bit when the dinner party itself starts. One very dysfunctional married couple and the assistant’s wealthy writer boyfriend Roger are the only ones who didn’t cancel. The rest of the evening consists of polite and not-so polite conversation that seems to play itself out as an artsy version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Two couples snipe at each other, with the more successful partners of each couple undercutting their respective partners at every turn. For the audience, this is a little tough to watch. These people aren’t particularly likable, but they aren’t supposed to be.

Annie often quotes the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca. And much like that author’s work, this film is infused with the magical realism of Spanish literature. When they prepare the meal early on, the steps of cooking are very specific. But they are often interrupted with dream sequences of a mysterious Spanish figure (presumably Lorca himself) spouting poetry about love. How the dinner party plays out forces Annie into an extended fantasy where she reexamines her choices in life. This is a woman looking back who longs for what could have been.

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The small cast is uniformly strong in White Camellias. The two couples are believable, with Gia Carides being a particular standout. As the wealthy controlling force in her relationship with her husband, she is bored, nasty, and honest. Cybill Shepherd acquits herself well with this material. At times she seems a little stiff when she should be more passionate, but overall she gives a good performance.

Director/producer Russell Brown wrote the script as well. He is heavily influenced by the writings of Lorca. And while we can see what he is attempting here, sometimes his overtly obvious approach to the material makes the film less thoughtful than it wants to be. There are too many times where his characters simply spit out how they feel. Sometimes it’s for comedic effect, such as when Roger asks his partner why he won’t perform a certain act with his tongue. But mostly it just feels like these characters are a bit obvious. The performances win out, though.

White Camellias screens June 9th at 4:00PM at Pacific Place.

Final Grade: C+


I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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