Mix lush Southern elegance with family therapy. Bake in a heated argument, frost with humor in the form of three devoted friends and you have a recipe for the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
The film, based on the book by Rebecca Wells, traces a mother and daughter's battle-scarred relationship through effective flashback sequences that reiterate the power of memory, which can capture the details of the past, but, in its narrow scope, also fail to see the big picture.
The Ya-Ya Sisterhood refers to a harmless ritualistic secret childhood society (with headdresses and all) that one of the main characters, Vivi Walker, and her three friends created in fun to cement the bonds of friendship. The four remain devoted to one another through triumph and tragedy.
While one of the film's constant themes is the bond of friendship between women, the story centers on the relationship between family members, specifically mothers and daughters.
Sidda, played convincingly by Sandra Bullock, is a playwright in New York who gives Time magazine an interview that makes her childhood out to be less than ideal. The contrast between her modern city apartment she shares with her Scottish fiance and the antiqued rural South is pronounced, and subtly depicts the daughter who is running away from her upbringing.
When her mother, Vivi, played by Ellen Burstyn reads the story, it causes a massive rift in their relationship, which is played out in a hilarious series of exchanged letters.
Despite the humor, the damage to their relationship is serious, and this is where Vivi's childhood friends intervene to mend the rift.
The acting is right on target. Vivi's friends, played by Maggie Smith (she's a hoot!), Fionnula Flanagan and Shirley Knight, are a perfect ensemble of women who have known each other for so long that they instinctively know what the others are thinking. These women know how far to push each other, but they also know when to let things be. During the lighter moments they act like siblings bickering behind Mom and Dad's back.
Burstyn plays Vivi with just the right amount of Southern charm and over-the top dramatics combined with an awkward hesitancy as she tries the to fix the relationships that have somehow jumped the track and taken a rocky path of their own.
Ashley Judd plays the younger Vivi in flashback sequences complementing Burstyn's Vivi with a bold flash of vivacity and self-assurance as well as a bewildering sense of vulnerability when dealing with her family.
Judd has an older essence about her, and fits well in the 1950s and 60s Louisiana flashbacks with flawless make-up and elegant dresses. However, in some of the film's darker moments, the camera also catches Judd in a state of distress and depression, which is evoked through her listless manner, naked face and disheveled hair. She transitions Vivi from a limitless teen with journalistic ambitions to a despondent wife and mother who feels trapped by her domestic responsibilities.
This internal struggle is illustrated nicely by John Bailey's camera work in a scene where, in one long take, Judd simply stares at the mirror reflecting her own frighteningly expressionless features in silence.
As Vivi and Sidda come to terms with their pasts, there are a few schmaltzy moments, where those who can relate (and, really, who can't?) to an emotional family outburst will want to bring tissues.
The two men in the film, James Garner who plays Vivi's husband, Shep, and Angus MacFadyen who plays Sidda's fiance, Connor, are steady and understated. They try to be supportive, and this is apparent as the film plays up the lack of understanding between the sexes without feminist male-bashing.
Director Callie Khouri, who also adapted the book to a screenplay, balances the flashback and present-day sequences just right, mixing light humor with the more intense emotions to ease the climactic revelation at the end. She never lets one overwhelm the other. The transitions are subtle, but the shift in time is apparent between the old luxuriant, yet conflicted, South and the antiqued present day that seems, much like the character of Vivi, to have found a certain peace with age.