This kind of thing happens all the time in the South.



Callie Khouri makes a
less than heavenly directorial debut with
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

by Coury Turczyn

They're pretty nearly crazy. They've got names like Truvy or Carnelle or Teensy. They sport big hats and drive fast convertibles. When feeling oppressed, they either threaten murder or feign suicide. They're usually quite attractive, wear tight dresses, and speak with unidentifiable drawls that seemingly lilt under the summer heat. Men swarm around them like excited fireflies, but very few ever get the chance to be caught. Also, they know how to use their fists.

I'd really like the chance to meet one of these hip Southern belles, but so far I've only seen them in the movies. They seem to exist only in one particular corner of the Hollywood backlot: a mythical South where everybody's a colorful eccentric living in a small town, the houses are all grand decaying Victorians, and mosquitoes don't exist. In fact, I'd really like to live there, too.

But I suppose I have at least caught glimpses of such people and places–enough to inspire a sense of patience when facing such precious tributes to Southern womanhood as Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker, Crazy in Alabama, Fried Green Tomatoes, and the Grande Dame of crazed-Dixie-firecracker movies, Steel Magnolias. Although I don't really buy their Southern-fried histrionics and implausible characters, I can see why a certain audience would: For all the misfortunes that may beset their heroines, these movies are lifestyle fantasies with the kinds of friendships we all wish we had.

The latest addition to this sub-genre, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, has many of the same faults of its sister films: messy, unbelievable, melodramatic. But it also has a fine cast, good lines from writer/director Callie Khouri, and a powerful family conflict that sometimes transcends the clunky storytelling.

Based on the cult novel of the same name by Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets concerns itself with the relationship between successful 30-ish playwright Sidda (Sandra Bullock) and her rather emotional 70-ish mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). (Don't expect common names like "Martha" or "Jane" in a movie like this.) In an interview in Time, Sidda comments that her plays are inspired by the troubled upbringing she had courtesy of her mother. Once Vivi reads this, she responds by screaming, crying, breaking things, and then disowning her daughter (for an idea of Burstyn's characterization, think of Scarlett O'Hara's temper crossed with Blanche DuBois' mania). In order to mend their relationship, Vivi's septuagenarian friends in the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Maggie Smith as "Caro," Fionnula Flanagan as "Teensy," and Shirley Knight as "Necie") drug Sidda and cart her back to Louisiana from New York City. There, they tell her stories of the Ya-Yas and explain why her mother is the way she is.

While the characters' actions are for the most part rather unlikely (can you really place a drugged woman on an airplane, even with a forged doctor's note?), the underlying story does try to get at a reality most other family movies avoid: Not all parents are great. In fact, some people really stink at parenting, leaving emotional scars on their children that will last well into adulthood. As Divine Secrets reveals–when it manages to stay focused–many who've undergone a horrible childhood vow never to do the same with their own children… only to commit other, equally damaging acts. It's not because these are evil people, but rather ones who are mentally ill-equipped to raise and nurture children. But that isn't to say that parents and their grown children can't grow to understand each other as adults with similar problems, and to move beyond past sins–a theme which Divine Secrets eventually gets around to imparting.

Khouri, the writer behind Something to Talk About and Thelma & Louise, makes her directing debut with Divine Secrets, and it shows. Literally. All too often, the story is overshadowed by simple problems that probably could've been fixed. Much of the movie is told in flashback as the Ya-Yas recollect their crazy times with Vivi–but the chronology and the characters are difficult to follow. While the book was set in the '80s, there's no indication in the movie of what time we're in to begin with, so you'll probably assume it's 2002. If that's so, then most of the flashbacks involving Sidda as a girl must have occurred in the '70s–yet every flashback looks like it's set in the '50s. (Maybe the production designer just assumed that the South always looks like the '50s.) Likewise, some scenes are jarringly misplaced; in one sequence set in the present, the Ya-Yas are dressed to the nines and heading out in a convertible–and then, suddenly, they're all back in their respective homes, without a clue as to where they were going, why they were dressed up, or why we had to see them get in a car in the first place. There are more problems like these aplenty.

Nevertheless, the cast of Ya-Yas delivers some affecting performances, led by Ashley Judd as the younger flashback-Vivi. While Burstyn's present-Vivi is mostly a collection of mannerisms, Judd manages to portray a complex character–a beautiful young woman who has created a life for herself that's far from her aspirations, and who consequently suffers emotional and psychological misery that bleeds into the lives of her family with devastating effects. Judd is often better than the movies she selects, and it's true here as well. While Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood offers meaningful themes and enjoyable characters, Khouri's inexperience as a director results in a movie that only partly satisfies.


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