Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg-13
116 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Callie Khouri. Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Maggie Smith, Katy Selverstone.

By way of preface, I should say that, though I am a man and I recognize that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is not designed for me, I also recognize its value as popular entertainment. Men are used to Hollywood catering to them with blood-and-testosterone-fueled action epics that tell men it's both horrible and wonderful to be a man, whereas women only get a full-fledged epic of this type once or twice in a decade...in defiance of hit-making logic or general fair play. Based on the titular Rebecca Wells novel and another named Little Altars Everywhere, Ya-Ya does the job...nicely.

Like a pair of dowdy but sensible shoes (sorry), Ya-Ya sacrifices some style to maintain its mainstream comfort level, but the film benefits from an impressive generation-gap cast and a dash of Louisiana atmosphere (largely endowed by T Bone Burnett's soundtrack choices). Beginning with the 1930s inauguration--by four teenage girls--of an instant-mythology all-girl society, the story follows the girls into a troubled, war-shadowed adulthood which settles into modern-day old age and the grooming of uncomfortable progeny for Ya-Ya membership. Their tale requires that attention be paid, if only because the decade-leaping narrative will surely disorient those who haven't read the novel. Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, and Shirley Knight play the modern-day Ya-Yas, James Garner represents the rare combination of X and Y chromosomes as Burstyn's second husband, and Sandra Bullock plays Sidda, the uncomfortably engaged daughter under whose skin Burstyn's Vivi crawls. Both Burstyn and Bullock deliver larger-than-life star performances (a good thing), and in a crafty bit of acting, Ashley Judd credibly embodies Vivi as a deeply troubled younger woman.

In fact, Judd's part of the story is the mysterious pivot point about which Sidda and Vivi must come to terms. But this plot is thinly developed, for the sake of simplicity and accessibility. Where, typically, independent films excel at exploring dark nights of the soul with laser-like focus, here Vivi's crisis is shown up for what it is: a manipulation of audience pathos and a Macguffin to wedge between mother and daughter.

The film excels, rather, in its farcical strain of a daughter being dragged--kicking and screaming--into the realization that she is her mother's daughter, along with Khouri's sly self-awareness that the other Ya-Yas--whose stories don't bear telling in a summer movie of finite length--can be quite annoying (speaking for myself, I didn't walk out of the film happily yelping "Ya ya!"). On the other hand, Maggie Smith and Fionnula Flanagan both have a chance to shine with the odd bon mot or catty rejoinder (the overrated Knight is relegated to nattering and blubbering as the ineffectual Necie).

Ultimately too fragmented to be wholly effective, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood nevertheless serves up nostalgia and reasonable portions of warmth and humor.

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