Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a 2002 American comedy-drama film starring an ensemble cast headed by Sandra Bullock, directed and written by Callie Khouri. It is based on Rebecca Wells' novel of the same name and its prequel collection of short stories, Little Altars Everywhere.
The film opens in 1937 Louisiana with four little girls out in the woods at night, each wearing a home-made headdress. The leader, Viviane Abbott (Caitlin Wachs), initiates them into a secret order she dubs the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which they seal by cutting their palms and taking a blood oath of undying loyalty.
The film then moves to New York City in the 1990s, where Viviane's eldest daughter, playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), while overseeing production of her newest release, gives an interview with a reporter from Time, mentioning her unhappy childhood as a major source of inspiration for her work. The reporter sensationalizes Sidda's complaint, implying abuse and deep, dark family secrets.
Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) reads the article and becomes extremely upset. She calls Sidda, but instead of speaking can only bang the phone on the table while crying that she is dead to her. Sidda, equally frustrated by her mother's behavior, also bangs her phone against the counter after Vivi has hung up on her. Much to the frustration of her fiancé, Connor McGill (Angus Macfadyen), Sidda takes her mother's behavior as a declaration of all-out war. Vivi takes down all the pictures of Sidda in her house, cuts her face out of family pictures, and mails the defaced pictures to Sidda, along with a copy of her will with Sidda's name marked out. Sidda in turn sends Vivi a newly printed wedding invitation with the time and place cut out, plus torn-up tickets to her play.
When the Ya-Ya Sisters learn of Vivi's war, they decide to take matters into their own hands to resolve it. Led by Caroline Eliza "Caro" Benett (Maggie Smith), Aimee Malissa "Teensy" Whitman (Fionnula Flanagan), and Denise Rose "Necie" Kelleher (Shirley Knight) visit Sidda in New York, then drug her, kidnap her, and take her back to Louisiana. There they show her a scrapbook album her mother has kept, titled Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which they believe they must reveal to Sidda.
They explain to Sidda her mother's experiences, depicted in flashbacks of their childhood, then as young women and mothers, including Sidda's own childhood. Vivi's (Ashley Judd) troubles include: encountering racism as a child at Teensy's uncle and aunt's house; a bitter, jealous mother who falsely accuses her of incest with her father, and the loss of her true love, Teensy's older brother Jack (Matthew Settle) who is killed in World War II. She settles for an unhappy marriage with Shepherd James "Shep" Walker (David Lee Smith/James Garner), a good and faithful man who loves her, despite the abuse she heaps on him because he isn't Jack.
This is all well and good to Sidda, but doesn't change her opinion of her mother as a self-centered person unable to deal with her troubles, which she has unfairly inflicted on Sidda to the point of needing psychotherapy. Meanwhile, she tells Connor not to send out the wedding invitations, which troubles him enough to come down to Louisiana to find her. The Sisters then realize that Sidda must be told Vivi's deepest, darkest secret in order to understand. They try to persuade Vivi that she must do this herself, but she doesn't have the courage to tell her daughter, so they do it for her with Sidda's father present. In the meantime, Vivi tells Connor herself. The secret is that Vivi eventually had a nervous breakdown, and brutally beat Sidda and her siblings. What the children never knew was that Vivi had taken an overdose of Dexamyl, (an amphetamine used as an antidepressant), and had to be hospitalized.
Sidda finally understands the depth of her mother's suffering, and that she didn't have to waste money on therapy trying to find out why it was her fault. She also recalls a happy memory of her mother: when Sidda missed out on an airplane ride because she was too scared but then changed her mind, Vivi borrowed money to get the pilot to give one more ride, which she took with Sidda. Vivi and Sidda reconcile, and Sidda decides that she wants to marry Connor in Louisiana. Vivi makes her daughter a Ya-Ya headdress, and the Sisters induct her into the order.Sandra Bullock as Siddalee "Sidda" Walker
Allison Bertolino as the child Sidda
Angus Macfadyen as Connor McGill
Ellen Burstyn as Viviane Joan "Vivi" Abbott Walker
Ashley Judd as young Vivi Abbott-Walker
Caitlin Wachs as the child Vivi Abbott
James Garner as Shepherd James "Shep" Walker
David Lee Smith as young Shep
Maggie Smith as Caroline Eliza "Caro" Brewer Bennett
Katy Selverstone as young Caro
Mary Katherine Weiss as the child Caro
Fionnula Flanagan as Aimee Malissa "Teensy" Whitman
Jacqueline McKenzie as young Teensy
Alyssa May Gold as the child Teensy
Shirley Knight as Denise Rose "Necie" Kelleher Ogden
Kiersten Warren as young Necie
Nicki Tschudi as the child Necie
Matthew Settle as Jack Whitman
Cherry Jones as "Buggy" Abbott, Vivi's mother
David Rasche as Taylor Abbot, Vivi's father
Gina McKee as Genevieve Whitman, Teensy's mother
Mark Joy as Mr. Whitman, Teensy's father
Directed by Callie Khouri
Screenplay by Callie Khouri
Adaptation by Mark Andrus
Produced by Bonnie Bruckheimer and Hunt Lowry
Executive producers : Bette Midler & Mary McLaglen
Executive producers : E.K. Gaylord II & Lisa Stewart
Director of photography : John Bailey, A.S.C.
Production designer : David J. Bomba
Edited by Andrew Marcus
Music by T Bone Burnett
Original score by David Mansfield & T Bone Burnett
Costume designer : Gary Jones
Associate producers : Scott Elias & Tom Proper
Visuals effects by CREO
Divine Secrets grossed a domestic total of $69,599,016 and $4,240,224 outside the States, totaling $73,839,240 worldwide. The film opened at #2 the weekend of its release with $16,167,412 behind The Sum of All Fears's second weekend.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood received a mixed response from film critics. The film holds a 44% "Rotten" rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is more melodramatic than emotionally truthful, and uneven in its mixture of time periods, actresses, laughter and tears."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film only one-and-a-half out of four stars, writing, "The Ya-Ya Sisterhood is rubber-stamped from the same mold that has produced an inexhaustible supply of fictional Southern belles who drink too much, talk too much, think about themselves too much, try too hard to be the most unforgettable character you've ever met, and are, in general, insufferable." He added, "There is not a character in the movie with a shred of plausibility, not an event that is believable, not a confrontation that is not staged, not a moment that is not false." Todd McCarthy of Variety similarly remarked, "While there are pleasures to be had from watching so many grand actresses strut their stuff, the fact is that the overriding preoccupation here rests with surface impressions rather than psychological probity."
Conversely, Stephen Holden of The New York Times gave the film a more positive review, describing it as "resolutely for and about women" and observing, "For all its failed connections, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is nurturing, in a gauzy, dithering way." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times also praised the film, saying, "This is a work of excess and passion, an untidy sprawl of a motion picture that is sometimes ragged, occasionally uncertain, but--and this is what's important--always warm, accessible and rich in emotional life."