Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Screenplay : Kallie Khouri (adaptation by Mark Andrus, based on the novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Sandra Bullock (Sidda), Ellen Burstyn (Vivi), Ashley Judd (Younger Vivi), Fionnula Flanagan (Teensy), James Garner (Shep Walker), Maggie Smith (Caro), Shirley Knight (Necie), Cherry Jones (Buggy), Angus MacFadyen (Connor),
As a Southern-fried tale of teary mother-daughter redemption, Callie Khouri's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood strikes a few resounding notes of truth. Unfortunately, those notes of truth, however moving, are otherwise submerged in a generally hackneyed comedic melodrama full of eccentric caricatures and forced plot devices that make you want to roll your eyes.
Based on two best-selling novels by Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is essentially two hours of time-shifting backstory--it is somehow both painfully simple and utterly complicated at the same time. The framing story takes place in the present, where Sidda Walker (Sandra Bullock), a renowned New York playwright, makes some less-than-pleasant comments about her mother in an interview with Time magazine (she describes her as the most charming damaged person she'd ever known and attributes her creativity to her difficult childhood). When her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), reads this, she flies off the handle, as is her customary way of dealing with problems, and promptly disowns her daughter. (At this point, there is an amusing montage of Sidda and Vivi sending UPS packages back and forth filled with cut-up pictures and other symbolic artifacts of retribution.)
So, to mend the problem, Vivi's three best friends since childhood, the flamboyant and improbably named Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Caro (Maggie Smith), and Necie (Shirley Knight), go up to New York, drug Sidda (I'm not kidding here), and take her back to Louisiana so they can spend several days in a backwoods cabin explaining to her all the things she never knew about her mother's difficult life so that she might better understand Vivi's flawed character. The theme is that of inner damage, and how that damage is passed on from mother to daughter in an endless cycle largely because of a lack of communication--ironically enough, in a story where everyone talks too much, fatal flaws are passed down through the generations because, in some sense, the mothers and daughters don't talk enough. Everything that takes place in the movie is theoretically in the pursuit of breaking that chain, allowing Sidda to understand that she doesn't have to become her mother (which is, of course, her greatest fear, to the point that she almost calls off her own wedding).
This structure involves a sometimes confusing amount of time shifting, going back and forth among the present day, the 1930s when Vivi and her friends were children forming a blood oath as Ya-Ya Sisters, and the 1950s and '60s when Vivi (played here by Ashley Judd) was a young woman and mother and Sidda was a child. Some of the flashbacks are Sidda's--things she remembers from her childhood--while others are told to her by Teensy, Caro, and Necie. As the narrative begins winding toward its climax, it becomes clear that there is One Big Secret that has never been told and, once out in the open, will clarify everything. Unfortunately, it is exactly that kind of sudden reductionism that limits the story's potential to make any meaningful headway in exploring complex mother-daughter dynamics. Damaged lives often have key moments that help explain them, but it is only in forced fictional escapades like this that the legacy of those lives can be cleared up by hearing One Big revelation.
First-time director Callie Khouri, best known for her Oscar-winning screenplay for the gender-reversal buddie movie Thelma and Louise (1991), never seems to have a complete grasp of the material. Perhaps it's all the time-shifting that makes it feel frantic and off-balance, but the story seems to get constantly bogged down in anecdotal moments that serve as puzzle pieces that never quite fit together. Flashbacks of Vivi taking Sidda for a joyous plane ride are juxtaposed with flashbacks of Vivi screaming at her children, deserting them, returning to them, and at times even beating them, but it constantly feels like there should be connecting tissue that just isn't there. As just one example, the flashbacks rely heavily on Sidda having several siblings, yet these siblings are never even referenced in the present-day story. What happened to them?
Another question that is raised is what is the deal with the men in this story? As the narrative is primarily estrogen-driven, there is a certain expectation that men will be largely sidelined, although the two male characters here are almost inexplicably passive, which in the movie's terms is synonymous with being good and decent. Good men put up with difficult women, and that's about all they do. First, there's Shep (James Garner), Vivi's long-suffering husband who has coped with hell for 40 years and looks only slightly tired for it. Then there's Conner (Angus MacFadyen), Sidda's Scottish fiancé who is slightly more assertive than Shep, but is still constantly relegated to the sideline (even when he makes the trip from New York to Louisiana to make sure they are, in fact, still enagaged). It's no small surprise that one of the final shots of the movie is Shep and Conner sitting alone on the porch drinking beer while the women reconcile and solve all the movie's problems themselves. When decades of emotional strife can be solved by One Big Revelation, who needs men, anyway?
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick