From Mildred Pierce and Imitation of Life to Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias, where would the cinema be without mothers and daughters and their epic misunderstandings?
In the movies, male love is expressed in the intimacy of the battlefield and female love is expressed in the pathos of separation and disagreement.
The emotionally brutal gulf that divides a mother and a daughter is the concern of the you-go-girl Southern-fried melodrama Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
For once, a movie may be an improvement on a book, because while this film Ya-Ya is undeniably corny and knock-kneed, it is less of a snooze in the hands of director Callie Khouri (who makes her directorial debut after penning Thelma & Louise) than Rebecca Wells' cutie-pie novel.
Ya-Ya is about a flown-the-coop Southerner, Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), who has left her native Louisiana to write plays in New York City. Sidda finds herself drawn back into the psychological gumbo of her Southern girlhood when her enraged mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) reads a Time article about Sidda's dysfunctional childhood and poor upbringing. It is up to Vivi's clique of best girlfriends, a gaggle of Golden Girls crossed with the fiercest Backstreet drag queens, to haul Sidda's scrawny ass back home to mend the torn bond between mother and child.
It is a triumph of liver spots and flinty attitude that the most interesting and likeable characters in Ya-Ya are the attitude-spewing Ya-Yas, who possess the devil-may-care brazenness of women whose advanced age makes them beyond caring. If only the film's ostensible star had half that charisma. Sandra Bullock, the most ungainly, personality-deflecting creation foisted upon audiences since Loni Anderson, keeps Ya-Ya from fully succumbing to the freewheeling guilty pleasure it might have been. Backing her up in the mediocrity department is Ashley Judd, who looks killer in a '50s swimsuit and can work her crimson lips like nobody's business but offers as much warmth as a can of Sterno in the Andes.
The rest of the cast certainly put up a valiant effort. The bitchy, drink-swilling tart-broads known as the Ya-Yas -- salty glamour girl Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), brilliantly droll Caro (Maggie Smith) and ditzy Necie (Shirley Knight) -- have the vocabulary of sailors and more feminine sensuality and spunk than any newly minted breed of starlet. Had these wildly entertaining ladies and their eye-rolling irreverence been given free reign, this Ya-Ya could have really wailed. When the Ya-Yas are not looking like some visitation from Tennessee Williams country -- sucking the last drop of vodka from a Bloody Mary celery stick, lugging around oxygen tanks and hot-rodding around town in their canary Rolls Royce -- things can get a little stale.
Ya-Ya employs a time-traveling rhythm that has proven consistently unsuccessful in film. It moves between the present, where the Ya-Yas keep Sidda hostage while plotting the mother and child reunion, and the past, featuring flashbacks to both Vivi's youth and Sidda's childhood.
You couldn't come up with a better cultural moment to unleash Ya-Ya on film audiences. Just as Khouri's Thelma & Louise script articulated a rising fury over the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment debate and William Kennedy rape case, Ya-Ya revolves around the current hot-button issue of motherhood as a more complicated proposition than Donna Reed would have us believe. The trauma at the heart of Ya-Ya is a mother who may yearn for something beyond child-rearing and may even resent her children.
Like even the schlockiest melodramas offered up to women as their gender culture, Ya-Ya pulses with a degree of truth about women's lives that is prettied up like a paper doily under a shot glass of tequila. There are many genuine pleasures in this fun mother-daughter melodrama, if you don't expect too much.