Reviewed Jun 13, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
The so-called “chick flick” has emerged into a semi-dependable Hollywood category, working on the assumption that tales devoted to rich, interpersonal relationships amongst women will mostly appeal to women only. In such a post-feminist climate, such a film openly and honestly about women’s issues is a welcome event in this target group. Writer Callie Khouri shared in such a reception courted in controversy, when her script for director Ridley Scott’s feminist road-movie Thelma and Louise reclaimed a traditionally male genre for a new generation of women. As bold and adventurous as that film was in its time, Khouri virtually disappeared from the public gaze until she re-surfaced a decade later as the writer and director of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, based on a popular novel about the dynamics of mother-daughter relationships and long-term friendships amongst women. This time, Khouri fared far less well and her directorial debut was quite harshly received as sentimental and unconvincing as well as overly familiar.
The story starts out concerning successful playwright Sidda (Sandra Bullock) who in an interview with Time magazine makes some harsh remarks about her childhood and her mother. This angers her mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) and creates a rift between them. Vivi’s close circle of friends, the self-proclaimed Ya-Yas, takes it upon themselves to affect a reconciliation by kidnapping Sidda and taking her back to the South. Once there, Sidda opens the Ya-Ya photo and scrapbook as the friends tell her stories about her mother’s life, details she had not previously known. These are revealed in flashbacks, charting Vivi as a child and later as a young woman (played by Ashley Judd) who has a hard time reacting to motherhood in light of her youthful aspirations and so driven to despair at her own feelings. The Ya-Yas hope that by learning the truth about a parent’s life, the daughter will understand and make peace with what she considered unacceptable behaviour and bad parenting.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood strives to integrate its affirming view of the powerful bonds of female friendship with its story of mother and daughter reconciliation. Much of it is about the power of memory and the sharing of recollections to overcome and transcend the boundaries between generations. It finds richness in female friendship that is a central theme, and a link even to Thelma and Louise. It assumes that there is often much unsaid between mothers and daughters and that a daughter can ever only know a little about their parent’s life and early aspirations. It hopes that a context of shared understanding will enliven memory and bring peace and greater acceptance. As such, it concentrates on Vivi as a woman once full of youthful expectation who could not cope fully with family life but charts the process of Sidda’s memories as being led to concentrate on her mother’s positive qualities and accept the reasons for her failings. However, the film does not go deep enough into Vivi’s reasons and implies that this mother and daughter must have rarely even communicated with each other. As such it is a film about healing the sense of disconnectedness that sometimes exists between parents and their children.
Still, the film successfully explores the idea of misperception that daughters may have of mothers simply because they do not know the whole truth. The redemptive power of female friendship (presented in the film as true solidarity) is that it can enable this greater truth to find expression. Memory is selective, a jigsaw puzzle that is never complete unless informed by outside witnesses to the great event surrounding these memories. In this the greatest dilemma of young motherhood is shown to be the acceptance of a kind of self-sacrifice and a subordination of personal drive. This is shown as an inherent trauma that some women cannot cope with. But the film also has faith in the old cliché that time heals old wounds, because with time will eventually come understanding. These may not be groundbreaking ideas but the film handles them quite capably. However, the humour often seems forced and the acting initially over-stated, taking some time to settle in as it delves into what many may dismiss as simple sentimental melodrama. Nevertheless, the film is full of the joy of interpersonal relationships amongst women of successive generations as able to transcend heartbreak and although sentimental, a warm faith in human nature and understanding emerge dominant.