Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood

Stars:   Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, Maggie Smith, James Garner, Angus MacFadyen
Director:   Callie Khouri
Writer:   Callie Khouri, based on an adaptation by Mark Andrus of the novel by Rebecca Wells

The best things about Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is seeing some of our more mature female talent get a chance to act, Ashley Judd’s performance and the music. The worst things are not especially compelling characters in the women, almost nonexistent characters in the men and a somewhat implausible plot. But, don’t get me wrong, I think women, generally, will like it, mainly because they’ll be so thankful they’re watching a drama with women in it, where no one gets killed, where things don’t blow up and it’s not a buddy-cop picture.

It begins with four young girls holding a sacred midnight ceremony in the woods, somewhere in Louisiana in the 1930s, where they pledge their lifelong love and friendship. There’s Vivi, the leader, Teensy, Necie and Caro. Sounds like a bunch of bunnies. They call themselves the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Reel ahead to present day New York City where Siddalee (aka Sidda) Walker (Sandra Bullock), Vivi’s grown daughter and a prominent playwright is giving an interview for Time Magazine where some of her comments are being perceived as “mother-bashing”. When Vivi, now played by Ellen Burstyn, gets an eyeful of daughterly wrath, she immediately and histrionically disowns Sidda. Vivi also calls in the Ya-Yas to commiserate with her over the death blow. Poor Sidda … all she did was say she had a hard childhood and, according to the myriad of flashbacks unleashed on us, we know it’s the truth.

The Ya-Yas cannot bear the idea that mother and daughter have become so estranged so they drug and kidnap Sidda and haul her back to Louisiana where they plan to reveal the hidden secrets of the Sisterhood in hopes of healing the rift. Surely, if Sidda knew the truth about Vivi’s harsh life, she would forgive and forget. Now as we see them, the Ya-Yas are in their full glory. Teensy, played by Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, is the wealthy smart-mouth, driving a yellow Rolls-Royce convertible; Caro, played by British actress Maggie Smith is witty on cue between emphysema rasps as she lugs around her portable oxygen tank; Necie, played by Shirley Knight is tender and a little shy. Of the lot, Maggie Smith’s Southern accent falters as much as her feeble steps. They’re larger than life, loud, swillers of alcohol. And, seemingly, without a will of her own, Sidda plays out her role as captive. She’s tempted by the revelations of the Sisterhood and we come to discover who these women are, expecting a big payoff in the end as to the big secret in Vivi’s life that made her less than loving to her daughter.

Via endless flashbacks, we’re transported to the old South when the Ya-Yas were young ladies, with Ashley Judd in the role of the exuberant Vivi. It is this version of Vivi that is the most interesting and yet the script is too cursory, the editing too choppy at times to satisfy our need to understand why a woman so equipped as she seemed to be could fall victim to sadness and disillusionment of such tragic proportions.

Along the way, we also come to meet Sidda’s father, the long-suffering Shep (in later years played by James Garner) and Sidda’s fiancee Conner (Angus MacFadyen) who’s waited seven years to get her to marry him. The men are just window dressing here. Neither has much to do and poor Garner looks particularly lost.

Lotta says: Bullock’s fine; Judd’s got some good meat in her role; otherwise, the whole thing is set up to jerk some tears out of dry eyes with the the elder Ya-Yas doing their best to stay on top of hyper Southern characterizations. There are some tender moments and the end result is a pleasant film for the ladies, as I’m sure the men will stay away in droves. Not that they should.

Reviewed 6/7/02