Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:56 - Released 6/7/02

I finally see Ashley Judd in a performance I like, and it's in a movie like this. Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, as its name suggests, is mostly a load of pretentious crap, but it has its moments. A dark and mysterious tale of dysfunctional familyhood in the Deep South directed by Callie Khouri (writer of Thelma & Louise and Something To Talk About in her camera-wielding debut), the film tries a little too desperately to be Steel Magnolias. But it does have its moments. Divine Secrets is another example of a film balancing precipitously on the edge of disaster, saved in large part by the talent of its actors. I never thought I'd be saying that about an Ashley Judd film, but there it is. The woman puts forth a truly engaging performance in a thanklessly pretentious part, and the same goes for Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, and Maggie Smith, among others.

This movie is based on the novel by the same name, and another called Little Altars Everywhere, both by Rebecca Wells, with the screen adaptation by Mark Andrus (Life as a House) and director Khouri. It starts in 1937 Louisiana with a solemn nightime ritual involving fire, potions, bloodletting, and four young girls. When Vivi, Teensy, Necie, and Caro squish together the open wounds they have inflicted on their palms, they declare themselves "Ya-Ya priestesses" (apparently in accordance with some ancient voodoo mythology), not to mention friends for life. We then flash forward to the present, when an interview is published in Time magazine with noted New York author Siddalee Walker (Bullock), the adult daughter of Ya-Ya leader Vivi, in which she decries the psychotic, self-centered, alcoholic, me-first behavior of her mother and the resulting wealth of writing inspiration derived from her difficult childhood. This, of course, sends the aging Vivi (Burstyn) into an emotional tailspin and a vindictive rage, forcing her not only to cut "Sidda" out of her will, but call in the other members of the ancient sisterhood for support.

So just as they have done many times before, Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight), and Caro (Smith) come to the rescue, kidnapping Sidda and taking her to their cabin in the bayous, where they plan to educate her once and for all about why her mother is such an emotional wreck. The remainder of the film is spent traveling back and forth in time from the late '50s, in which Vivi is played as a young Scarlett O'Hara type by Judd, and the present, where Sidda comes to realize that there was more to her mother's regular freakouts and scattershot parenting style than met the eye. In the meantime, the Ya-Yas constantly bicker, play cards, and reminisce, and Sidda's loving fiancé (Angus MacFadyen) and father (James Garner) try desperately to understand their female counterparts with little or no success.

In between the cloying sentimentality and the self-indulgent celebration of Girls And All They Stand For, this movie does occasionally slip in some meaningful dialogue, some nice, subtle acting, and lots of beautiful Louisiana and North Carolina scenery. I must say I don't understand the reason for all the fuss (the whole film centers around one of those "big secrets" that, when revealed, seemed woefully anticlimactic to me), and every time those women all shouted "Ya-Ya!" in unison, I had to suppress a belch. But I'm sure as in all novel-to-screenplay adaptations, so much is lost in the translation that the end result seems sparse and uninspired in comparison to the source material. Which is too bad, because, good story or not, this film will definitely not inspire me to read the book. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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