Published June 7, 2002
The children sit in a circle under the full moon, having snuck out of the house in the middle of the night. They don elaborate head-dresses and give themselves royal or noble Indian names and cut their hands before clasping them in the blood-brother oath of eternal fidelity. Except that they’re not brothers but sisters. These are girls, of ten or eleven winters, sitting outdoors in flimsy nightgowns to swear their oath under a Louisiana moon. I don’t know, maybe young girls (as opposed to boys) in 1937 really did do this kind of thing. Maybe they do it today. But not in their nightgowns — which would have got dirty but are left on here to remind the audience of the importance of their sex — and not with so tremendous a psychic effect that the sororal bond would remain stronger than ever 65 years later.
If you are prepared to believe these things, however, you might get on better than I did with The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, adapted from novels by Rebecca Wells and directed by Callie (Thelma and Louise) Khouri. But I tend to believe that the rituals of real little girls would be tempered by the knowledge of how ineffably silly they would look if, by the time they have got to the age of Ellen Burstyn or Dame Maggie Smith or Cherry Jones or Fionnula Flannagan, they are still saying “Ya Ya” and giggling to each other. In fact, all it would take would be one Ya Ya to render unnecessary any oath to exclude outsiders. Especially men. Only someone as impervious to cuteness as to female craziness, someone like the long-suffering Shep (James Garner), Miss Burstyn’s screen husband (the only such article in sight) could take it.
But perhaps the rich mixture of high-test estrogen is necessary to get the film’s profoundly feminine central premiss off the ground. This is that any moral discussion may be illuminated by biography. Miss Burstyn’s character, called Vivi, has quarreled with her daughter, Sidda (Sandra Bullock), a playwright who has hinted to an interviewer for Time of her appalling childhood among the Southern grotesques down on the bayou. As usual, the Southern grotesques themselves immensely enjoy their indignation at being so portrayed, and the fellowship of the Ya Yas is immediately galvanized into action to kidnap Sidda (why this is thought necessary is never made clear) and explain to her how her momma got to be the crazy drunken pill-popper she was for much of her, Sidda’s, childhood.
This is accomplished for the cinematic audience with the help of extensive flashbacks in which Ashley Judd plays the younger Vivi and Alison Bertolino the younger Sidda. It would be tedious to go over all the reasons suggested for Vivi’s undoubted history of abuse and bad behavior (she is naturally an utterly sane, sober and charming old lady now), but racism, sexual abuse, patriarchal oppression, inadequate knowledge of the effects of pharmaceutical products and American involvement from 1941 to 1945 in the war against fascism are all possibilities. Needless to say, mother and daughter are reconciled, and the latter is initiated into the Ya Ya Sisterhood.
But it occurs to me that, back in the days of Vivi’s young womanhood, when people would say that someone could (or could not) “hold his (or her) liquor,” they meant not just that he (or she) could walk, talk and operate heavy machinery after imbibing but that she (or he) could continue to drink — or, for that matter, continue not to drink — without boring others with her (or his) drinking problem. “Holding one’s liquor” meant holding on to all those inward, private feelings, or “insecurities” if you prefer, as well as the thing that might release them onto the world. Like that of many reformed alcoholics, Vivi’s emotional incontinence is worse sober than it is drunk. But if the sisterhood seems to like her better that way, the rest of us can slip quietly out of the circle and into the Louisiana night.