Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
review by Gregory Avery, 7 June 2002

"All right, who wants to drown?" asks the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) of a group of kids playing in the placid waters of a lake. There's no emergency, but her daughter, Sidi, gladly obliged and sinks below the surface, waiting for her mother to come to the rescue, which she does, swimming back to shore while telling Sidi, with some amount of steely admonition, "Make it look good." The question of why a child such as Sidi would so readily submit to such a request, and why her mother would make it, is made somewhat clear once we see, from Sidi's point-of-view, the figure of her mother, like a beautiful dolphin, sweep over her before scooping her up, to the successive approval of friends and family back on the shore.

The film, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,  has a very interesting idea at its center, that of how women who, sharing a close bond with their mothers, are afraid that they'll end up acting as crazy and neurotic as they do, and how this same matriarchal behavior is passed down through generations. The adult Sidi (Sandra Bullock) is a playwright whose remarks in a Time magazine interview about her childhood are misconstrued by Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), who uses them as an excuse to go into a tizzy, with the intention of throwing Sidi into a tizzy, as well. Sidi, in turn, sees this as another in an endless series of vengeful reprisals against her by her mother, for which she is supposed to feel responsible, and her frustration over that leads her to start emulating the same sort of behavior that she so dislikes seeing in her mother, even to the point of where she wonders whether to call off her wedding to her fiancé (Angus MacFadyen), not wanting to run the risk of, inevitably, treating her children the same maddening way that Vivi has treated her.

As it turns out, Sidi feels a long-term resentment for a period, when she was still a child, where Vivi abandoned her family, only to return, become an alcoholic, and fall into terrifying fits of psychosis. Unable to marry the man whom she really loved, Vivi became wed to Shep, a well-meaning man whom she eventually comes to openly despise and scorn. As the older Shep, James Garner brings a wonderful resonance to this character, who has resigned himself to being more of a faithful companion to his wife rather than a husband: he and Sidi share a common bond of being outsiders who have been locked-out by the same woman whom they nonetheless keep turning to for emotional approval.

Callie Khouri -- who wrote the original screenplay for Thelma and Louise, as well as the 1995 Julia Roberts picture Something to Talk About -- directed this film and wrote the screenplay, which is based on an adaptation by Mark Andrus made of a popular novel by Rebecca Wells and its sequel, Little Altars Everywhere, and the picture (at least from this seat in the house) credibly takes care not to depict the characters as being totally one-sided, nor to indulge in the kind of pseudo-Southern kitsch female mannerisms that the story's setting, Louisiana, sometimes evokes from filmmakers. The characters' histories, and reasons for their behavior, are parceled out, like bread crumbs, well over the course of the narrative, and the effect, along with the device of not having the adult Sidi and her mother meet onscreen until the picture is almost over, softens things a bit in a way that not only fails to evoke meaning at important points of the story but also fails to connect up all the dots in the narrative itself. (Sidi has three other siblings, seen in flashback, that are otherwise never seen or heard from during the rest of the picture.) One brief scene depicting Vivi's own parents (played by David Rasche and the superb Cherry Jones) tells us all we need to know about how the dynamics of their marriage had turned terribly against Vivi's mother and caused her to act spitefully in turn towards her daughter. On the other hand, we don't get a really good idea of what prompts Vivi to return to her family after she leaves them, or why she would turn her anger against her own children. The effect has a tendency to point up the more sunnier aspects of Vivi and Sidi's past history, including an instance where mother and daughter take a ride on a fairground biplane: Sidi wants to go up in it, but she is also afraid and she doesn't tell her mother until late in the day. "Nobody ever got anywhere by bein' frightened!" Vivi says, whereupon she craftily contrives a way so that Sidi gets her ride in the biplane, even when it's long past quitting time. While Vivi's show of fortitude in this particular instance is admirable, you still feel like saying, no, sometimes you can't always go up in the biplane, and life is what you do when you have to reconcile yourself to those situations.

Part of the glue that holds things together for the characters in the movie is the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a secret sorority which Vivi and her three closest friends established when they were young girls, calling upon the power of the great warrior women and queens that came before them. The girls meet and wear funny-looking headdresses and hats, and when they continue to meet years later, they still wear the same funny headdresses and hats. Khouri got three formidable actresses with proven track records -- Shirley Knight, Fionnula Flanagan, and Maggie Smith -- to play the three aging, but still rambunctious, friends, and while they treat the goings-on with a bit of a wink and a nudge, it's really supposed to mean something. The woman drop whatever they're doing in life  and rush to stage an intervention between Vivi and Sidi, spiriting Sidi off to a sort of "safe lodge" by a lake, where they play cards, tell stories, and commiserate as needs be. It's as improbable as all get-out, but there's an appealing camaraderie that springs up in the scenes, along with a few hearty laughs. It would be nice if we all had such time to spare.

Written and
Directed by:

Callie Khouri

Ellen Burstyn
Sandra Bullock
Ashley Judd
James Garner
Angus MacFadyen
Shirley Knight
Fionnula Flanagan
Maggie Smith

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be in appropriate
for children under 13.






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