Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Written and directed by Callie Khouri
From the novels by Rebecca Wells
Starring Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn

 

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Thirtyish Sidda (Sandra Bullock) is a New York playwright with a long-term boyfriend, Connor (Angus MacFadyen), and issues - major issues - with her Louisiana mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). "Divine Secrets" is the story, from two novels by Rebecca Wells, of how that came to be and how a kind of resolution was achieved.

The film moves back and forth in time, beginning in the present, when Sidda speaks frankly about her mother in a Time magazine interview and Vivi reads the story and goes ballistic; but with flashbacks to two earlier times in Vivi's life. They take us from her childhood, when one night in the woods she and three friends formed the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with a blood oath, up to today, when her three friends Teensy (Fiannula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith) take it upon themselves to bring the two warring sides together. The story is not a very pretty one, and the issues are those of brutality, mental collapse, alcoholism and neglect. Vivi has been a terrible mother but is herself the product of an even worse set of parents, and in her own way she has done her best for Sidda.

We see Vivi's childhood under the thumb of a vicious father and a submissive mother, and then meet her again as a young woman (played by Ashley Judd) who loses her fiancÚ in the Second World War and ultimately marries stolid farmer Shep (James Garner), whom she does not love, and on whom she takes out much of her frustration. All of this is intercut with the present-day story, as the three Ya-Yas manage to kidnap Sidda and bring her back to Louisiana in hopes of putting together a resolution, or at least an understanding, of the rage the two women feel toward each other.

The story has all the elements of a tragic emotional (and physical) battering, and they are there; but it is told as a kind of comedy. Vivi's Ya-Ya friends are bright and understanding and bold enough to stand up to everything Sidda and Vivi try to throw at them. Sidda has not been so damaged that she cannot understand the kind of cosmic wit and the love behind Vivi's attempts at mothering. And Vivi too has the perception to see herself at last, and to grow up as well.

"Divine Secrets" is a strange film, structured so ambitiously by director and co-writer Callie Khouri (who wrote "Thelma and Louise") that she sometimes leaves us hanging in her sequences of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashforwards. But she makes her point and we do come to understand all that has happened. Although the film is billed as a comedy with dramatic overtones, and it is often quite funny, Khouri is most effective directing the very painful scenes of brutality and neglect and sorrow. She stages the comic elements in a by-the-numbers way that keeps them from having the resonance she obviously intends.

The actors also do some flailing around with their southern accents - Bullock's one gesture in that direction is to say 'Y'all' - but that is not an impermissible fault. Although the writing doesn't give much separation to the characters of the Ya-Yas - they could all be interchangeable, mouthing each others' lines, were it not for their different outfits - that too is not a problem here. The two men, though - Sidda's Curran and Vivi's Shep - simply hang around the edges of the film without making their presence felt. But the story is powerful enough to carry us along, laughing and crying through sixty years and three generations of women, and ultimately Khouri gives us a film with resonance and power.