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By Michael Dequina | June 7, 2002

Since it first hit bookstore shelves in 1996, Rebecca Wells’ novel “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” has proven so popular that certain circles of women have gone so far as to form their own Ya-Ya Sisterhoods: groups in which they rechristen themselves as high priestesses with gibberish names and pray to pagan goddesses while wearing ridiculously elaborate headdresses and shouting “Ya-Ya!” Such a fascinating — not to mention highly disturbing — fringe phenomenon stokes the curiosity about Callie Khouri’s film version of the book, if not necessarily about its quality (or even story) than to just get some clear idea as to what the hell the big deal is about.
Seeing the film, my initial, gut perception of those who form real life Ya-Ya Sisterhoods stands: these are women with way too much time on their hands. Maybe Wells’ novel sheds a little more light on what the Ya-Ya concept entirely entails, but as presented in the film it’s nothing more than a bit of dress-up mystical hokum that four lifelong friends came up with when they were children. I repeat–when they were children. As in it’s a ridiculous little game that kids would play and hence hold a certain nostalgic, sentimental significance as the players grew older. As in it’s not something that was intended to be adopted and practiced by adults. After all, strip away all the chanting and costumes, and what is a Ya-Ya Sisterhood? A group of friends that engages in the time-tested and socially accepted activity of… hanging out. Is there really any need to complicate the practice by sprinkling fairy dust on each other in forests at night? I didn’t think so.
But I digress. In the film, the whole Ya-Ya concept doesn’t really hold much significance at all; it’s just a side quirk in an overly familiar story about mother-daughter understanding — or, should I say, misunderstanding. Sidda Lee (Sandra Bullock) is a playwright who owes her success and bottomless well of inspiration to her difficult childhood with her overbearing lush of a mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn)–a fact she relates to a Time magazine interviewer. When the article is printed, Vivi goes ballistic, further straining the already-tortured mother-daughter relationship. In come Vivi’s Ya-Ya compatriots Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Maggie Smith) to the rescue, whisking Sidda away from the Big Apple and back to a secluded cabin in Louisiana, where the women try to make Sidda come to an understanding about Vivi by revealing the secrets of her past.
And so the film weaves back and forth between present and past, where we see how free spirited young Vivi (Ashley Judd) was driven to madness through dashed dreams, addictions, and general selfishness. All the drama seems to be building to some grand point and/or revelation–a suspicion that grows with every ominous hint dropped during the present-set sections–but when the alleged payoff finally comes, it is so rushed and anticlimactic that one is likely to shrug and utter “That’s it?” It makes the de rigueur end-of-movie dose of the Dreaded H’s — hugs and healing — all the more saccharine and undeserved. One doesn’t need to read the original book to know that much was lost in the page-to-screen translation.
One also does wonder, to a certain extent, why such an impressive array of acting talent signed on for the project. Yes, there’s the ongoing issue of there being too few good roles for women, particularly for ladies of a certain age, but should the likes of Burstyn, Flanagan, Smith, and Knight have to be reduced to playing eccentric caricatures of aging Southern belles? Perhaps it’s not too surprising that the younger women, Judd and Bullock, have the meatier, less insulting roles to play. But I guess “Ya-Ya” is supposed to be taken as a progressive move of some sort since the men in the picture — James Garner as Vivi’s long-suffering husband, Angus Macfadyen as Sidda’s fiancé — are sideline afterthoughts at best. However, if you ask me, the fact that such strong, capable women are called on to carry a film as shoddy as “Ya-Ya” in front of and from behind the camera is hardly progress.

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