Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I heard something in the audience for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood I don’t hear often at the multiplex any more: the sound of middle-aged women laughing. In the summer of spider-men and Jedi knights, this movie strode in with a confident air of experience and estrogen. I may not have known it, but I was really ready for a movie like this one. It is determinedly not aimed at my segment of the audience, which made it all the more refreshing to me. Maybe, too, I usually don’t bother with material like this — which generally sinks to the level of “Lifetime, the Network for Women” — and here it’s done smartly and solidly for once.

The movie is taken from two cult-popular novels by Rebecca Wells, the same-named 1996 book and its 1992 predecessor Little Altars Everywhere. I’ve sampled enough of the former to know that the movie gets Wells’ life-is-crazy-but-what’s-the-alternative? tone of whimsy and forbearance. Callie Khouri, who won the hearts of many female moviegoers eleven summers ago with her Oscar-winning script for Thelma & Louise, has eased into her first directing job with material that seems to fit her perfectly. Khouri understands and loves Southern women, their particular madnesses and glories. Wells gives her the tools she needs to make a multi-generational women’s mini-epic that never lapses into victimology.

Sandra Bullock, alert and snappish, is Siddalee Walker, a New York theater director beginning to get recognition. Thus begins her trouble: In an interview with Time, Siddalee lets slip that her childhood with her mercurial mom — played in twilight by Ellen Burstyn and in early adulthood by Ashley Judd — was often bumpy enough to “help her creativity.” Vivi, the mother, goes ballistic when she reads the article; her best friends — Caro (Maggie Smith), Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), and Necie (Shirley Knight), with whom Vivi formed the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in girlhood — come to the rescue. They spirit Siddalee away from New York and home to Louisiana, using a tactic insane enough to be almost plausible. Their plan is to fill Siddalee in on who her mother was and why she did what she did.

The revelations come at an unhurried pace. If you enjoy watching the veteran actresses — and Bullock flowering in their presence — as much as I did, you won’t want them to hurry. Khouri sets a comfortable stage for her performers and gets out of their way. She’s exceedingly gentle with the men in the cast — James Garner as Vivi’s long-suffering husband Shep, Angus Macfadyen as Siddalee’s equally patient fiancé — which should blow away any lingering perception of Khouri as a man-basher (everyone seems to forget that Harvey Keitel’s cop was the sanest character in Thelma & Louise). And Ashley Judd, for whom I’ve traditionally had little use as an actress — she usually comes off as too hard, glossy, actressy — comes through as the impetuous, gradually unstable younger Vivi. She nails a wordless, almost expressionless scene of self-loathing in front of a mirror; she makes us feel Vivi’s helpless rage when all three of her kids get sick at once.

Movies like this have to end with tearful mother-daughter reconciliations and a final scene where family and friends gather for a rip-roaring celebration. Divine Secrets earns the sniffles and laughs it gets at the end. In outline, this isn’t a lot different from what you might see on Lifetime. In execution, it’s a fine piece of work about women who go back decades and who know each other better than they know themselves, and about the unhappy younger woman whom three of the women embrace as if she were their own blood. Which, in a way, she is. Divine Secrets covers most of the women’s-weepie bases without pushing too much.

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