A review of  Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for language, adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

 

 

Girl power’s day in the sun (“Enough”, “Unfaithful”) persists with a breezy adaptation of Rebecca Wells’ richly penned novel of the same name.

A healthy dose of sentiment accompanies the female force field.  Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) is a prominent young New York City playwright with a lifetime of childhood hurts to overcome by means of a steady diet of therapy and an impending marriage.  When a Time Magazine profile on Sidda implies that life with mom was not a bed a roses, Vivi Walker (Ellen Burstyn) raises a good old-fashioned southern ruckus. 

The mother-daughter feud threatens to destroy their resilient but dysfunctional bond, an alarming emotional development that sends a voting majority of the Ya-Yas to the rescue. The Ya-Ya Sisterhood - four lifelong, Louisiana-bred friends bound by tradition and familiarity (Fionnula Flanagan, Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight and Burstyn) - concocts an unorthodox intervention to bring mother and her eldest issue together forever. Their strategy involves 40 years of photos, letters, dried corsages and the je ne sais quoi of the Divine Secrets. With a little help from her aging aunties, Sidda opens the door to letting go of her past.

All is not sweetness and light in the Ya-Ya history books.  Detailed flashbacks emphasize the origins of Sidda’s painful memories, most at the hand of the vivacious yet unbalanced Vivi (Ashley Judd as the younger), for whom Louisianan refinement and humor give way to relentlessly cruel temper tantrums and a heightened sense of anxiety.

Powerful performances anchor the lively narrative when the flashing back and forward gets muddled.  The elder Ya-Yas are a delight, bouncing lines off each other with the subtle ease of truly seasoned professionals.  Judd has a harder row to hoe. As the pivotal Ya-Ya of her generation, she is the only character to be fully developed as a human being; a spiteful one at that.  Judd measures up, capturing innumerable emotions with a single facial movement.  Bullock is lovely as the conflicted young career woman battling a mountain of insecurity, as is her supportive intended, the hunky Cyrus MacFadyen (as Connor).

Affecting moments aplenty help soothe the onscreen horrors of alcoholism, bouts of depression, and heartbreaking child abuse.  The tone errs on the shrill side, tempered by a soft southern gentility that speaks of beauty, grace, and a closet full of skeletons.