Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)


What is a Ya-Ya? As with jazz and Taoism, if you have to ask, you may never know. It’s got something to do with enduring friendship, of course, and shared secrets, and lots and lots of gabbing. And it helps if you are Southern, Catholic, and at least a little bit crazy. On the other hand, if you just love the Southern-fried novels of Rebecca Wells, then you may well consider yourself a Ya-Ya. (I need not mention the obvious factor of gender, since all men know, without needing to be told, that they are not Ya-Yas.)

2002, Warner Bros. Directed by by Callie Khouri. Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, James Garner, Ashley Judd, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, Maggie Smith. Based on the fiction of Rebecca Wells.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+2 / -2

Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Recurring crass language and some profanity; much drinking of liquor and references to alcoholism; historiographical racial slurs; domestic conflict and a difficult scene of violence against children; fleeting depictions of scantily clad women and implied nudity; veiled allegations (apparently unfounded) of parental incest; mixed depictions of Catholicism.

My wife is not strictly a Ya-Ya, but she belongs to an email group for Catholic homeschooling mothers, one of whom fits the term perfectly and has long since declared my wife and the other mothers in the group "honorary Ya-Yas." I know this because a few of the husbands, myself included, occasionally participate in a minor way in these conversations, although we are not even honorary Ya-Yas. One of the other husbands once rather puckishly wondered whether we might not be honorary "Yo-Yos"; but this usage didn’t catch on.

Despite being more of the "Yo" than "Ya" persuasion, I think I’m pretty receptive toward what are commonly called "chick flicks." After all, my wife and I enjoy the same "guy movies"; why shouldn’t we enjoy the same romances and other female-targeted films?

Still, I came to Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood with some trepidation: First-time director Callie Khouri is best known as the screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s angry bad-girl buddy/road picture Thelma and Louise. Fortunately, while Khouri’s new film does contain a scene in which the Ya-Yas, racing along in a convertible (a Rolls-Royce Corniche, definitely a step above Thelma and Louise’s 1956 Thunderbird), decide to cross a certain line, the line they cross only lands them in jail, in contrast to where Thelma and Louise landed.

More importantly, none of the Ya-Yas has an abusive husband, or is almost raped, or finds it necessary to shoot anybody or blow anything up in response to male oppression. In fact, the film has a great deal of affection for its two main male characters, played by James Garner and Angus MacFadyen. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood may be a female-skewing picture, but it’s not a male-skewering one. As for the Ya-Yas themselves, they aren’t bad, just naughty, with their drinking and cussing and youthful sneaking out at night.

In the end, if Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood didn’t quite cross the gender line for me, I nevertheless found sitting through it to be a fairly painless experience, and have little doubt that true Ya-Yas will embrace it as this summer’s Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias. Not counting such platitudes as "Think about the good times," it may not have any actual "divine secrets" to divulge ("secrets," yes, but they turn out to be more tragic and sad than divine), but juicy performances from the formidable cast and perennial themes of mother-daughter conflict and forgiveness will endear the picture to its target audience.

Sandra Bullock plays Sidda, a successful New York playwright with a hunky, loving fiancé (MacFadyen) to whom she can’t quite seem to commit. Then comes a disastrous interview in Time magazine that paints a much less flattering — but possibly more accurate — portrait of Sidda’s Louisiana upbringing than she intended. Sidda’s histrionic mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) is predictably outraged, and what follows is the mother of all mother-daughter feuds.

Very quickly, the conflict is no longer just about Vivi’s over-the-top rage in the present, but about her failings as a mother in the past, which Sidda can never forgive or forget. That’s when the Ya-Yas, Vivi’s lifelong childhood friends, intervene. They know Vivi’s faults as well as anyone, but they also know that Sidda doesn’t know all there is to know about her mother and how she got to be the way she is — and was.

At least, that’s how it runs in theory. In practice, the supposed revelations about Vivi’s past aren’t particularly surprising, and certainly shouldn’t be to Sidda. Nor do they entirely mitigate Vivi’s erratic lapses as a parent. In fact, some of Vivi’s issues make her character more alienating, not less. Are we really supposed to feel sorry for her because marriage and motherhood deprived her of her youthful longings for a more glamorous lifestyle? And, while I understand the immediate causes of Vivi’s darkest moment as a parent, what’s with her inability to respond appropriately to the needs of her kids when they come down with G.I. bugs?

But the secrets of Vivi’s past are really just a device in a story that’s essentially about memory and forgiveness. Khouri and her production designers take us back and forth between the past and the present, showing us Vivi’s childhood, her life as a young woman, and of course her old age in the present.

Don’t try to make sense of the timeline, which has Vivi as a child (played by 13-year-old Caitlin Wachs) attending the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, but finds her all grown up and played by Ashley Judd by the time the United States enters World War II a couple of years later. (It gets worse: Sidda is born in the early 1950s, but is played in the present by Sandra Bullock!)

Instead, enjoy the composite picture created by the powerful and convincingly dovetailed performances of Burstyn and Judd. Soak up the beautiful sights of 1930s Atlanta and 1950s Louisiana. Take in the novelty of the very English Maggie Smith and the equally Irish Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) mugging and cracking wise as aging southern belles.

If you ever start to get fed up with the antics of all these crazy dames, fall back on the even-keeled supporting male characters. Identify with Sidda’s fiancé Connor as he makes a valiant stand for sane and grown-up behavior in the drama-queen world of the Ya-Yas. Appreciate the humble dignity of Vivi’s husband Shep (James Garner), who’s always accepted his place in the shadow of Vivi’s lost first love and has never succumbed to self-pity.

Garner in particular gets some of the film’s most poignant moments. In one touching father-daughter scene, Sidda looks at Shep and asks suddenly, "Daddy, did you get loved enough?" Shep’s eyes crinkle as he looks off into the distance, and he murmurs only: "Oh, well… what’s enough? My question is, did you?" Then there’s the scene in which Shep explains to Vivi how he’s always looked at their relationship — followed by the priceless look on his face when she responds with a naughty double-entendre come-on.

To enjoy these elements, you’ll have to sort through the film’s mixed portrayal of Catholicism, which is nowhere better exemplified than in a scene with Burstyn in her nightgown on the lawn in a circle of sparklers, invoking the Blessed Mother with attempted bargains and then dancing under a full moon. We also see Vivi’s own mother as a neurotic, guilt-obsessed woman whose husband contemptuously calls her a "pathetic Catholic idiot."

It’s hard to know what we’re meant to think of the priest to whom Vivi confesses her decidedly nonmaternal feelings and impulses. While his advice to her is not couched with great sympathy, it seems like fine advice. (He tells her to try to banish her bad thoughts of abandoning her children and harming her husband, and to ask Mary the mother of our Lord to help her accept the will of God with perfect submission.)

The priest also refers Vivi to a doctor for help with her drinking, though it turns out that the doctor errs badly in treating her — an error that another man suggests the doctor might be culpable for, though that possibility is later dismissed by a character who comments, "Nobody knew s--- back then."

And of course one would like to offer Vivi some remedial catechesis when she says, "There are some things for which I don’t expect to be forgiven by my children — not even by God." Finally, while the Ya-Yas’ mock-religious ceremonies are clearly meant to be silly and fun rather than serious, some viewers may be put off such pseudo-liturgical utterances as "We are the waters of rain and rivers and oceans" or invocations to the moon "from which we gain our strength to rule all worlds."

Although Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood offers no divine secrets as such, as a didactically minded Catholic male I can’t resist an attempt to codify the film’s milieu just a bit. Here’s a brief glimpse into the Divine Secrets of Ya-Ya Sisterhood as enumerated by the Decent Films Guide.

  1. Women are crazy.
  2. But ya gotta love ’em.
  3. Good men are infinitely understanding of 1, and wholeheartedly embrace 2.
  4. Bad men are also well aware of 1, but reject 2.
  5. So basically everybody agrees that women are crazy.
  6. If your mother is a psycho, cheer up: It might be that she’s less crazy than you think, and it was really her mother that was a psycho.
  7. Women bond in secret wearing silly hats; men bond drinking beer on the porch.
  8. Alcohol is not the answer to life’s problems, but it sure helps.
  9. Unless you are drinking with three old women packing a date-rape drug.
  10. Young girls in 1939 will throw food at a boy who makes racial slurs. Also, a boy who has been hit in the face with a plate of food and threatened with a second faceful will stand still to receive the second hit.
  11. And, finally, a word of advice that applies as much to this movie as to life: Remember the good times.

Comedy, Drama