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The sunny, edifying children’s books most girls grew up on tend to valorize gumptious youngsters over pretty ones. Though the quartet of sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women may represent the four pillars of girlhood, tomboyish, literary Jo—a stand-in for Lou herself—is clearly supposed to be the star. Naturally, no one wanted to be motherly Meg, with her dopey husband and colicky twins, or sickly, saintly Beth, but not everyone followed Alcott’s lead: For some guilty young girls, Amy had it all—she was unrepentantly vain of her blond ringlets, possessed a ladylike semitalent for art, and married rich.
In later years, those little lipstick feminists no doubt graduated to Gone With the Wind, which elevated the status of eyelash-batting to a weapon of warfare and which Rebecca Wells references heavily in her best-selling 1996 novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. If book groups are the female equivalent of poker night, Divine Secrets is a full house. Part Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, part Little Women starring Scarlett O’Hara, Wells’ irresistible fantasy of Southern idiosyncrasy and the ties that bind women in friendships and family spawned group readings and minted “sisterhoods” among readers whose bonds would never be as quirky, breezy, or rollicking as the decadeslong dynamic among the book’s main characters.
In putting the novel onscreen, all grrrl-power director Callie Khouri (who scripted Thelma & Louise and Something to Talk About) had to do was preserve the book’s tone and cast her film with sensitivity to possessive readers’ visions of Vivi, Teensy, Necie, and Caro, and she does. Khouri and screenplay adapter Mark Andrus condense Wells’ awkward narrative conceits into one present-day scenario plumped with extensive flashbacks, necessarily rerouting the plot a bit in a way that delightfully gathers three elderly Ya-Ya’s and their catalyst, Siddalee Walker, in one place for the film’s duration.
The apparently throwaway scene that opens the film sets the story in manic motion. Siddalee (Sandra Bullock) lounges in a Broadway theater during a rehearsal of her new play and chats with an empathetic reporter from Time magazine. The true shallowness of New York-style feminine bonding is exposed when the giggly reporter turns in a story that reduces Siddalee’s Louisiana childhood to a nonstop horror show and paints her mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), as a selfish, drunken nutcase.
Torn between the truth of this depiction and the attendant inevitability that Vivi will go ostentatiously berserk upon seeing it in print, Sidda freaks out in the presence of her patient Irish fiance, Connor (Angus MacFadyen), proving that the self-dramatizing peach doesn’t fall far from the tree. Within moments we are in high gear, as mother and daughter exchange vengeful FedExes in a quick and very funny montage, and their men cope accordingly: Connor tries to reason with Sidda and takes Vivi’s phone calls (actually, enraged hangups) while Vivi’s stoic husband, Shep (James Garner), moves rotely through the house, willfully oblivious to the firestorm of anguished recriminations, torn-up photographs, and ice-rattling glasses of booze around him.
Enter the Ya-Ya’s, as tangy, resourceful, and energetic a group of platinum-haired biddies as ever drove a yellow Bentley convertible at 80 mph down a country road. They drug Sidda and bring her to a bayou hideout—”Remind me never to talk to Time magazine,” one of them huffs—prepare a large batch of Bloody Marys, deal the cards, and wait for their captive to wake up. Their plan is to let the young woman in on the Sisterhood’s secrets, via a detailed scrapbook, to help her understand why Vivi is the way she is and that you just can’t cut your family loose—even if it is crazy and unreliable. The movie’s plan is to tell the Sisterhood’s story from childhood to glorious dotage in lengthy flashbacks, clipping back to the present every so often for therapeutic conclusions and another round of Bloodys.
The Ya-Ya’s are wild girls of a peculiarly Southern type—not bad, just saucy and wily and in love with their femininity, reveling in that bone-bred talent for sly charm and instant fragility that young women of a certain fine lineage are taught from the time they choose their silver pattern. They even have traditionally upper-crust diseases such as insanity and alcoholism. Their story, an epic swept over a small canvas, is full of the grand joys and miseries of youth, but the swampy sensuality of the setting and the claustrophobic Catholicism and the hot-pepper sass of the characters give this classic chick-movie cocktail of laughter and tears a brisk snap.
The film’s broad strokes wipe out some of Wells’ nicer details, such as attributing the catalogs stuffing Vivi’s mailbox to Shep’s “country-boy awe of mail-order” or the swipes at the venomous barbs hidden among the genteel frills of the local Junior League. But the aging belles are given fuller play, even if their youthful selves, although beautifully cast—particularly Katy Selverstone as the angular young Caro—are not: comfortably large and comfortably rich Necie (Shirley Knight) on the wagon, flinty Caro (Maggie Smith) manfully hauling her oxygen tank around, and half-Cajun exhibitionist Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), alas, keeping her clothes on.
Bullock is always pleasant and winning, never more so than when she’s playing the daffy girl forced into being the most sensible person in the room, and here she’s the perfect counterbalance to both hyperrational Connor, whose proposal she insanely reconsiders, and the crazy broads at the card table. As for Vivi, Burstyn plays the regal beauty with ferocious verve, her theatrical self-pity staged with one eye so blatantly gauging her effect that Vivi is often exasperating but never ridiculous, even as she abuses Shep for not being Jack, the boy she loved and lost to the war. Garner recedes deliberately into the background, signaling that, although Vivi’s emotions will never cease to impress him, he has resigned himself to the dumb throb of his own pain. Ashley Judd, apple-cheeked and sparkly-eyed, was made for the role of young Vivi, damaged queen of her own tiny realm; it would have been interesting to watch her, if the film had found room for it, in the harrowing sequence of Vivi’s exile in a Catholic retreat that reads like Nicole’s letters from the booby hatch in The Executioner’s Song.
Divine Secrets fans will troop off to see this film, and no doubt many will have quibbles—with the streamlined narrative, with the beigeing of Teensy’s colorful family. But because of these structural tweaks, the two versions tell two different stories. Whereas the more unwieldy but less immediately satisfying book is about longing for these ideal female friendships, the film is about their immanence.
Sure, prickly Southern subjects are handled with, ahem, white gloves: The realities of economics are addressed not at all (everyone’s rich—yay!), and race is shoehorned into a sequence at the Gone With the Wind premiere in Atlanta, which allows the girls to live out their Scarlett fantasies within a story that is one big Scarlett fantasy and the author gets to Say Something about racial inequality in the South. Still, when it comes to the women at the story’s center, the film is as gritty as it is sweet, and its Southernness feels much more genuine than the moronic cartooning of, say, The Gift. It’s a sassy, snappy, big-haired fiction, as dreamy and unlikely as a romance novel (though without those troublesome boys). Like the sisterhood it depicts, Divine Secrets has charms that are impossible to refute. CP