According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
I can trace back one of my most persistent anxieties about motherhood to a teenaged viewing of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. One scene in particular comes to mind: Vivi Abbot Walker (Ashley Judd), exhausted and overwhelmed, goes to confession after a particularly fraught night spent caring for four sick kids who stopped screaming her name only when they vomited. Clad in her most stylish coat, tied carelessly over a worn slip, she kneels in the confessional and admits her most shameful secret: She wants more.
“In my thoughts, I want to abandon my children,” she tells her priest. “I want to injure my husband, I want to run away, I want to be unattached, I want to be famous.”
Based on the eponymous novel by Rebecca Wells, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood follows the difficult relationship between Vivi (played later in life by Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock), a successful New York-based playwright who’s still working through an unnamed childhood trauma. When she gives a too-candid interview about her past, the overly dramatic Vivi cuts her off, causing Sidda to panic and postpone her engagement to fiance Connor (Angus Macfaydden) — what if she’s somehow unfit to be loved? Cue the Ya-Yas (Vivi’s childhood friends and surrogate mothers to Sidda) who swoop in to stage an intervention, and sit Sidda down with an old scrapbook. In a series of flashbacks, Sidda starts to unravel the secrets of Vivi, Caro (Maggie Smith), Teensy (Fionnula Flanaghan), and Necie (Shirley Knight), and realizes they could hold the key to her future.
The film, which hit heaters on June 7, 2002, marked the directorial debut of Callie Khouri — who had written the acclaimed screenplay for Thelma and Louise — and was one of the rare movies by and about women to be released that year. But I didn’t know that at the time. As a tween still figuring out the murky depths of womanhood, all I knew was that it was one of the first times I’d ever seen an onscreen mother figure second-guess her decision to have kids. And it scared me.
I have almost nothing in common with Vivi. As a Louisiana housewife in the 1950s, she had few other options, and a severe drinking problem that exacerbated her untreated mental health issues. And yet, there’s something so relatable about a young woman feeling like she’s the star of her own life, with big dreams and ambitions, only to realize that maybe it’s not going to work out. Every once in a while, I think about that scene. It still has the power to shake me. What if I feel robbed by my future kids? What if I make the wrong decision? What if I end up hating them and myself?
Yet, at the time, many film critics failed to pick up on these profound, disturbing questions. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood opened to fairly mediocre reviews, dismissing it as another lame, sentimental chick flick.
At The New York Times, Stephen Holden called it “nurturing, in a gauzy, dithering way.” Writing for Time, a publication that plays a pivotal role in the film, Richard Schickel dismissed the ending as “a waste of everyone's time.” Roger Ebert gave it a star and a half, and noted that Khouri “seems uncertain what the film is about, where it is going, what it hopes to prove apart from the most crashingly obvious cliches of light women's fiction.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, for his part, straight up addressed his review to men. “For guys whose pain threshold is way low when it comes to the bonding of Steel Magnolias,” he wrote, “Ya-Ya is a definite no-no.”
Contrast that with the piece Donna Britt wrote for The Washington Post, which highlighted the impact of seeing women’s stories on screen, no matter how flawed, in a world where so few movies were being catered to our interests. Her point was hammered home at the box office, where the film grossed $69.5 million domestically, more than doubling its production costs, as women headed en masse to theaters.
That’s not to say that women were overwhelmingly positive in their reactions. Slate’s Moira Redmond criticized the film’s reliance on a “punishing theme: that you need to have a bad mother in order to ‘find yourself’.” Meanwhile, over at Salon, Stephanie Zacherek skewered the movie’s glossy, ra-ra approach to sisterhood, which leaves little room for individual stories for shine through.
And in fairness, there is a lot to criticize here. Much like Gone With The Wind, whose 1939 Atlanta premiere Vivi and her friends attend in a flashback, the movie glosses over complicated questions of race by framing its protagonists as benevolent white ladies in a biased society. Vivi is repeatedly shown defending her Black maid, Wiletta (Leslie Silva) from racist attacks, without ever being forced to grapple with her own prejudice. That’s consistent with the glamorous version of the South that The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood wants to impart. It’s a world of graceful homes, gin rickeys, crawfish lawn parties and gossip, with a healthy dose of bayou mysticism. But it also buys into the myth of white Southern womanhood mass-producing sassy, strong-willed, steel-backboned, no-nonsense ladies, prizing loyalty and family above all.
What’s more, there’s definitely a disconnect in the portrayal of characters over time. Ellen Burstyn’s Vivi is delectable as a fabulous overblown diva, but it’s hard to imagine Ashley Judd’s hardboiled Vivi turning out that way. As for Sidda’s emotionally absent father, Shep (David Lee Smith), he shares little resemblance to the understanding, gentle version played by James Garner. And certainly, it’s wishful thinking to believe that the kind of emotional wounds depicted over the course of the film would be solved by Sidda and her mother having just one honest conversation.
But something magical happens when the film embraces its escapism. It helps that the Ya-Yas seem undeniably fun to be around. Flanaghan and Smith, in particular, make their characters into forces of nature. They completely inhabit the campy, kitsch vibe, dishing out sex advice to anyone who’ll listen, and guzzling their drinks with gusto. (Maggie Smith drawling “It’s delish!” about a shockingly pink Cosmo is forever tattooed on my brain.) Still, I also fully buy that they’d just as easily be repressed when it comes to talking about the more serious aspects of their lives. Mental illness, addiction, sorrow — those aren’t in Ya-Ya glossary. Nor are boundaries, as made evident by their plan to drug and kidnap Sidda to Louisiana so she’s forced to confront her mother.
And then there’s the flashbacks, which draw us, like Sidda herself, into an exclusive, bygone club of exaggeratedly genteel femininity — if that ever existed at all. Those moments are a grown-up fantasy version of the sleepovers you had with your own friends, with silken bloomers and flasks subbing in for flannel Paul Frank pajamas and Sour Cream ‘N’ Onion Ruffles.
Khouri has a rare gift for teasing out the delicate strands of intimacy that exist between women who have grown up together, sharing their most personal secrets. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the film is just how little men seem to matter in this world. Shep and Connor are the only even vaguely developed male characters, and they pale in comparison to the women in their lives. In that respect, they feel akin to the countless generic “wife” or “mother” characters, whose sole purpose is to prop up the men around them. (Yet another element that didn’t sit well with male reviewers, unused to seeing themselves relegated to the sidelines and forced to identify with the opposite sex.)
The staying power of The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood lies in its messy, complex depiction of mother-daughter relationships. When we meet young Vivi, she’s a spirited firecracker, beloved by her friends and sweetheart Jack (Matthew Settle). She’s got dreams of moving to New York and becoming a journalist, and it seems like nothing will everget in the way. She’s one of those girls who grows up knowing she’s special, chosen for a grand adventure of a life.
But then Jack dies fighting in World War II, and a heartbroken Vivi ends up married to the wrong man, and having four kids. She was born too early for her ambitions. It’s Sidda who gets to live out her mother’s dreams, and though Vivi is proud, she’s also jealous.
As Sidda, Bullock is likeable in her usual, earthy way, but it’s Judd who really carries the movie. With her warm, confident smile, always a hair away from turning manic as the mundane threatens to consume her, she’s magnetic to watch — the natural queen bee of a group of outrageous women. When we see her through Sidda’s rosy childhood eyes, she appears larger than life, the coolest, most charming mother a girl could hope for. But there’s always a rageful sadness lurking behind that mask, and that’s the side that comes through in the scene in the confessional, and later when Vivi has a violent nervous breakdown =that causes her to physically attack her kids. Khouri’s lens is sympathetic, and doesn’t so much condemn Vivi as try to understand women like her, even as it never sugarcoats the consequences of her actions.
Like Vivi, The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood was a little ahead of its time. It never quite got to ride the wave of change in Hollywood as women called for more diverse and nuanced representation behind the camera and onscreen. Instead, it dreamed big, floundered and eventually petered out, making way for better versions of itself. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important.