Our mothers, our selves

Callie Khouri’s new film cuts across generations to "the way we were."

Jun 12, 2002 at 12:00 am

Many, many moons ago, a covenant was made between four little Louisiana girls in white nightgowns and green Mary Janes. Around a crackling campfire they wore elaborate headdresses made from buttons, pearls and exotic odds and ends, while drinking the blood of alligator people (don’t worry, it’s only chocolate).

Although they might twirl and howl like Hollywood Indians, they are the “Mighty Ya-Ya Priestesses,” bound for eternity by blood and loyalty, and later on by smart mouths and liquor. The undisputed brains, vitality and imagination behind the sisterhood is Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). But Sidda (Sandra Bullock) has a limited history with Vivi, her mother, whom she considers “the most charming, wounded person you’ve ever met.” Now a successful playwright living in New York, Sidda relays her version of Vivi to a Time magazine reporter. And even though she credits her mother for her creativity (“If I’d have had an easy childhood, I would have nothing to write about.”), when the harsh “spare the whip, spoil the child” portrait reaches the older Vivi in print, any fissure that already existed between the two is torn wide open into a Grand Canyon chasm, and the war begins.

Burned photographs and shredded theater tickets sail through the mail, illustrating a generation gap turned into a black hole of misunderstanding. It’s a dire situation that calls for an intervention by the sisterhood. Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Caro (Maggie Smith) and Necie (Shirley Knight) are determined to demystify all sides of Vivi in the eyes of Sidda, whether she comes willingly or kicking and whining, through the divine secrets held in their Ya-Ya scrapbook bible.

Based on two of Rebecca Wells’ novels, Little Altars Everywhere and the book by the same name, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is written and directed by Callie Khouri, the writer behind Thelma & Louise. For her directorial debut, Khouri sure bit off a huge chunk of a project, one that covers three different time periods of a group of characters (which means three sets of actors playing the same characters), as well as the effects of two generations upon a third. It’s a task that would take a miniseries to cover adequately, and the story suffers from limited breathing space, barely having time to hint at major plot-driving tropes: such as younger Vivi’s desire for fame, mentioned briefly in a confessional, and the repressed-Catholic source of Vivi’s mother’s fear and jealously toward her, quickly brushed over to move on.

But despite the film’s many obstacles, including Bullock’s wooden expressions, it’s hard not to be affected by the outrageous talents of the older Ya-Yas. Burstyn, Flanagan, Knight and Smith have the chops, plus some, to flesh out this group of bridge-playing junkies, seething with Southern-flavored personality and vodka-fueled, foul-mouthed character, with just the right amount of makeup. Especially noteworthy is Flanagan’s portrayal of Teensy, a bleached blond sweetheart with a deadly determination that could stop a freight train with a glance.

But the true treasure of the film lies in the bridge between Vivi the child and Vivi the older woman. Ashley Judd is absolutely perfect as the young Vivi. She’s beautiful, dynamic and fits into World War II style like a tight pair of white gloves with a purse and cardigan to match. Whether she’s swooning in the arms of a drop-dead-gorgeous pilot, stripping in a naughty midnight convertible ride or crumbling from the weight of mothering four children, Judd will get you at all moments because she was made for this role, carrying her flashback scenes as if they were a film in themselves.

Parents are human. They have tragedies and traumas that shape their behavior just like everybody else, and Sidda’s job is to remember that she came into the life of a work in progress, Vivi, who had high hopes, dreams and a mother as well. On a mission of mercy, the Ya-Ya Priestesses help to introduce Sidda to a woman she never knew existed, and a little girl who danced around magical flames singing to the full moon.

Be sure to bring a bucket of Kleenex.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].