Welcome to the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: four childhood friends who have stuck together through thick and thin, hard times and good times, marriages, children, growing up and getting old. When Vivi severs ties with her daughter Sidda in anger over Sidda having opened up a few skeleton-filled closets in a magazine interview, the Ya-Yas do what any good friends would in a time of need: they come up with an unorthodox plan to bring the two back together again... this time, hopefully for good.
One of the interesting elements of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is that it has both a very small and a quite large cast. That is, the circle of main characters is small, consisting of Sidda, her fiancÚ, her father, her mother Vivi, and the three other Ya-Ya sisters, but the story is told in three separate timelines: Vivi's childhood, Sidda's childhood, and the present day in which Sidda is hearing stories or reliving her own memories. As a consequence, all the characters have at least two or sometimes three actors playing them: as small children, as young adults, and as older adults. Amazingly, I found it relatively easy to keep track of who was whom.
For the roles of the characters as adults, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood truly has an all-star cast: not all "stars" in the sense of the highest-paid actors, or the ones who have been in the most hit films, but in the sense of actors who are the best at their craft, who can not only bring their characters to life but also give them individuality, charm, and depth. As Sidda, Sandra Bullock has the central role, not necessarily in terms of total screen time, but in her place in the narrative. I'd say that her performance here is one of her better performances: she seems to play the same kind of character in pretty much every film I've seen her in, but in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood director Callie Khouri has teased out a well-rounded performance from her that fits the demands of the character quite well. The star of the flashback sequences is clearly Ashley Judd, who plays the younger Vivi, capturing both the highs and lows of that character's personality.
The true gems of the film are the Ya-Ya sisters, who turn in absolutely perfect performances, balancing just at that juncture of comedy and drama where the characters can be seen to be slightly "kooky" but still very real people. All four of the "Ya-Ya priestesses" are a delight, playing their roles with evident gusto: Maggie Smith almost steals the show as Caro, but we also get excellent performances from Fionnula Flanagan as Teensy, Shirley Knight as Necie, and of course Ellen Burstyn as Vivi, Sidda's mother.
Interestingly, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is an adaptation of not one, but two novels by Rebecca Wells: the portion of the story that deals with Sidda's own childhood is taken from Little Altars Everywhere, and the portion that has Sidda learning about her mother's own childhood in the Ya-Ya Sisterhood comes from the eponymous novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Unfortunately, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood doesn't quite live up to its generous amount of potential. The first half of the movie builds steadily upward, starting with a simple mother-daughter conflict that seems to be extreme beyond reason, and then spiraling back in time to both the mother's and the daughter's childhoods to slowly establish a rich context for the conflict. As more details are brought into the picture, a sense of mystery develops: in fact, on several occasions, the Ya-Ya sisters explicitly tell Sidda that she knows far too little, that she has misunderstood what she does know, and that everything will change when she knows the truth.
The one critical problem with creating a sense of expectation and anticipation in the viewer is that at some point, the film has to satisfy those expectations. This is where Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood falls short of its potential. Without actually revealing any plot points from the second half of the film, I'll just observe that I felt the resolution didn't achieve what it purports to achieve, and the resulting emotional consequences are slightly unconvincing as a result.
Warner has produced a nearly impeccable transfer of this film for DVD. The widescreen version of the film presents it in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. I was very pleased to notice that there's essentially no edge enhancement at all in the image, with the result that the picture has its full sharpness and detail. The image has a warm, inviting visual feel; colors are clear and natural-looking, and darker scenes show excellent contrast, with black areas being nicely rich without being overly dark. A hint of grain and one or two escaped speckles on the print appear in a few scenes as the only minor flaws in an outstanding transfer.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood's Dolby 5.1 soundtrack offers a robust presentation of this mainly dialogue-focused film. The actors' speech is always clear and natural-sounding, and the few minor environmental effects (the occasional car, a plane in one scene) are distinct as well. A number of actual songs are integrated into the soundtrack, and are nicely balanced with the dialogue portions of the track, so that the lyrics of the song never overlap or distract from the characters talking. All in all, it's a DVD that offers good audio quality to complement its outstanding video quality.
A reasonable package of special features is included on the DVD for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The mainstay of the extras is a pair of full-length audio commentaries: one by Ashley Judd and director/scriptwriter Callie Khouri, and another with Khouri, producers Bonnie Bruckheimer and Hunt Lowry, executive producer Lisa Stewart, editor Andrew Marcus, and composer T. Bone Burnett. Next in line for substance is a sixteen-minute section of deleted scenes, and then a promotional-style featurette, "Unlocking the Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." A section titled "The Ya-Ya Sisterhood Scrapbook" is a rather pointless section in which navigating through a series of animated scrapbook pages is required to track down a half-dozen 30-second-long clips from the movie or of the cast talking about their characters. Last, we get a trailer for the film and a set of cast filmographies.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood reaches for more than it can achieve, yet in doing so, manages to offer a viewing experience that's very interesting, if in the final analysis not entirely successful; certainly it's a far more worthwhile film than one that aims only at mediocrity and succeeds. With a talented cast in roles both large and small, and a successful balance of humor and drama, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is recommended.