On a dark and unstormy night, four young girls gather round a small campfire in the woods. The camera pans their sweet, illuminated faces as they exchange significant glances, and the ritual begins. The girls cut their palms (slightly), press them to one another’s, in order to form a blood-flow circle, then raise their voices in unison: “Loyalty forever! Ya-Ya!” Sparks fly up from the flames, the camera pulls out, and yet another ensemble chick flick is born.
Based on Rebecca Wells’ popular novels, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere, this particular flick is adeptly positioned as counter-programming to the summer’s action pix. But while the books are surely beloved and first-time director Callie Khouri, best known as the writer of Thelma & Louise, comes with all sorts of girl powery credentials, her new movie is worn out before it begins.
Structured as a series of flashbacks, the film, following this charming childhood scene, provides the requisite jumpstart crisis in the relationship between the de facto leader of the Ya-Yas, Vivi (now grown up to be Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter, Sidda (Sandra Bullock). A playwright of some renown, Sidda has recently been the subject of a Time magazine article that mentions her troubled childhood (including mom’s alcoholism, physical abuse, abandonment, and basic cantankerousness) as a possible source for her art. While it’s clear that Vivi and Sidda have spent years scrapping and/or not talking to one another, the article enrages Vivi, now feeling wronged by her ungrateful daughter, called out publicly as a bad mother. In chick flick-land, this is what you call your standard-catastrophe-leading-to-catharsis-some-90-minutes-down-the-road.
When it becomes apparent that Sidda and Vivi will not reconcile on their own, Vivi’s meddling childhood friends intervene on a “Ya-Ya mission of mercy.” They get themselves up to New York City, where Sidda’s working very hard to forget her own Southern roots. Though she Sidda points out that she’s had years of therapy with a professional, the Sisterhood — Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Maggie Smith) — will not take “no” for an answer. This is because they are, in a word, grandly “Southern,” though, to be fair, all three actors do make visible efforts to resist any number of scripted banalities stemming from this designation. While such identification-by-location grants the Ya-Yas a certain cinematic “tradition” (Steel Magnolias comes, however unbidden, to mind) and historical context (racism, class and gender anxieties, here rendered through lengthy flashbacks), it also tends to make them histrionic, eccentric stereotypes.
Unbeknownst to both Sidda and Vivi, the Ya-Yas have made a deal with Sidda’s fiancé, Connor (Angus MacFadyen), who agrees to let them slip Sidda a roofie and kidnap her from NYC back to Louisiana (for some reason, the airline attendants allow them to transport an unconscious woman). Connor rationalizes that Sidda must get over her commitment phobia so they can be married, but really, you have to wonder about a husband-to-be who would consent to such hijinks and treachery, rather than, say, a conversation.
Such hijinks, it appears, are par for the Ya-Ya course, so it appears that hapless Connor has choice but to go along. And this lack of choice in the face of self-styled forces of nature makes him a prime candidate to replicate the mostly melancholy career of Shep Walker (James Garner, looking patient throughout the film, but you do start to wonder why). Vivi’s husband is so puppy-doggishly dedicated to her, despite all kinds of difficulties, that he has agreed to sleep down the hall for most of their marriage. Apparently, menfolk need only orbit the Sisterhood, occasionally providing material sustenance but never participating in their emotional lives.
Just so, Connor cools his heels back in New York, appearing in occasional, brief phone-call scenes. Meanwhile, Sidda is subjected to what appears to be days of reeducation by flashbacks, occasioned by all the gals sitting round drinking and looking at their carefully handled scrapbook, full of the usual: movie tickets and dried flowers, hand-written bits of information and photos. Sidda is determined not to be impressed by these bits of memory-turned-into-history, being self-righteously furious at Vivi for being such a bad mother, not to mention afraid of her own emotional limitations, whether by nature or nurture.
Unable to love with anything approximating abandon, she wonders whether the Sisters and Connor have a point. Maybe she does need to figure out her familial background. Of course, this process involves chronological detail and frequent cuts between past and present. And oh lordy, the Sisters have so much to unload.
At first, they extol their adventurous childhoods, and by all accounts, Vivi (here played by Caitlin Wachs), was the belle of every youthful ball. admiration for the brilliant Vivi for her courage and spunk. The key flashback in this segment takes place during the girls’ trip to Atlanta for the premiere of Gone With the Wind, in 1939. Here they witness their hosts’ racist cruelty directed toward Vivi’s black maid, Willetta (Leslie Silva), who has come to serve the girls on the trip; while all the Ya-Yas are suitably horrified by this spectacle, Vivi speaks up and acts out, which apparently means a lot to her friends. There’s no sign what it might have meant for Willetta, who, after serving as the occasion for the girls’ enlightenment, has little to do in the rest of the film except serve. So, the moment passes, and Southern “race relations” remain pretty much intact, as far as you can tell.
Still, the story must go on. The young adult flashbacks feature Ashley Judd as Vivi. These scenes creep up on you: Judd (who here does her best, most subtle work since Ruby in Paradise, when she’s not called on to act like a Wild Woman) modulates, shifting from eerie calm to manic delight to quiet observation, and then collapses into emotional rubble before she comes back again, and again. As Sidda leafs through the scrapbook, she comes to understand Vivi’s evolving insanity and alcoholism, so dark a secret that even though her children endure her frighteningly erratic behavior for years, no one ever has seen fit to discuss it with them, in, say, a conversation. (It is also more than a little odd that Sidda’s younger siblings are not involved in this extensive recovery effort — there’s no mention of how damaged they may be.)
In between the flashbacks, the present-time versions of the Sisters group and regroup, initially hiding Sidda’s visit from Vivi, then confronting their old friend with the truth (or better, the “truth,” for if the film does anything at all well, it undermines the notion that there is a single set of facts or events to be deciphered here: Sidda’s pain and rage are real, whether she understood what was going on or not). Vivi sort of takes responsibility for screwing up her daughter’s life, but not really, because, well, she is mentally unstable — and more importantly, movie-style Southern — so she can’t be completely responsible for anything she’s done. Even poor Shep grants her a big old forgiveness scene.
And Sidda, good daughter in spite of herself, must forgive her mama for being imperfect and herself for being a lot like her mama, but not insane. The resolution is neatly symbolic, especially the final, feel-good Ashley Judd scene, where she takes young Sidda for a plane ride, so she can “face” her fears. It’s a pretty coda for Vivi’s more appalling Blanche Duboisian agitations, allowing her to run through a tight range of emotions, without hysterics. And it sure does make you wish the film’s broadly cartoony characterizations — those presupposing types according to gender, generation, and region — held less sway.