Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood3 min readReading Time: 2 minutes
There’s really a lot to like about The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – especially the present-day scenes with best friends Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight and Fionnula Flanagan – and when these grand dames are onscreen, throwing pointed barbs at each other or sharing fond memories, Ya-Ya blossoms delightfully. There are also funny and touching flashbacks to the late 1930s, when the childhood friends formed the Sisterhood – complete with bejeweled headdresses and joyous songs around the campfire. And, to top it all off, Sandra Bullock, ebullient as ever, headlines as Sidda, a Broadway actress who alienates her mother Vivi (Burstyn) in a scathing Time magazine interview depicting her difficult childhood. Still, I wasn’t gaga over Ya-Ya, though I did enjoy all of it.
I wanted to like it so much, and honestly, when Ya-Ya ended, I left the theater smiling because it’s one of those “feel good” movies. I especially enjoyed watching Ellen freak out with the phone – it’s little things like that that really bring the movie to life – plus it reminded me of the times I brutally beat up the phone when I should have taken my anger out on my old friend Joe Gripper for being such a jerk. My goodness, I had to buy at least a half dozen new phones during that relationship. AT&T was happy, I was not.
Anyway, I digress. I realized after some process time why I felt cheated by Ya-Ya. My dissatisfaction arose when the film focused on Sidda’s childhood relationship with her mother, played by Ashley Judd in protracted flashbacks. You see, Ashley does an excellent job as the tormented Vivi, who lost her true love during World War II, marries a man out of necessity, and later succumbs to alcoholism – there’s also the “secret” that the sisterhood has kept under wraps for years – so who am I to divulge it here? But Ya-Ya is pretty uneven as it flits back and forth between past and present, trying to blend Vivi’s and Sidda’s fractured relationship. While both the present and flashback sequences are good pieces, they felt like two completely different movies to me. I mean, the two Vivis never really mesh in the final product. It’s like different directors coached Ashley and Ellen – Ashley is all melodramatic and Ellen is the quintessential Southern belle. I just didn’t believe it.
And while the moments with Burstyn, Smith, Knight and Flanagan are priceless – they’re too few and far between – it’s as if these seasoned pros are wasted in throwaway roles. The parts where the sisterhood intervenes to reconcile Vivi and Sidda’s relationship are a delight. They drive from Louisiana to New York, slip Sidda a Mickey Finn, and kidnap her to explain her mother’s life story in the tasteful way that only a bevy of Southern belles can.
The few men in Ya-Ya are also wasted – I know, I know, this is a film for a female ensemble – but I would have liked to see more from James Garner, who plays Vivi’s husband, and Angus McFadyen, who plays Sidda’s love interest. Perhaps screenwriter Mark Andrus was trying to do too much with his script – after all, Ya-Ya is based on a series of novels by Rebecca Wells – and in retrospect the whole film feels top-heavy.