With a couple of the season’s bigger box-office bullies safely out of the way, the adult phase of the summer blockbuster cycle commences with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, an old-fashioned (as in mid-’90s) wallow in lite Southern Gothic dysfunctionalism. As earnest and smart-alecky as an entire season of Designing Women, Ya-Ya is sure to score with its redemptive family melodramatics and stock eccentric characterizations. If you count yourself among its potential fans, leave room for a serious helping of fried green magnolias.
Adapted by Mark Andrus and first-time director Callie Khouri (screenwriter of Thelma & Louise) from Rebecca Wells’s unaccountably beloved 1996 novel, Ya-Ya details the touchy relationship between successful playwright Sidda Lee Walker (a hemmed-in Sandra Bullock) and her cracked belle mother, Vivi (Ellen Burstyn). After dissing Mom in a Time interview, Sidda is kidnapped from the plush New York digs she shares with soulful fiancé Connor (Angus Macfadyen) to her Louisiana hometown by Vivi’s lifelong friends (Shirley Knight, Fionnula Flanagan, and Maggie Smith). Collectively and inexplicably known as the Ya-Yas, this dipsomaniacal trio educates Sidda in the genesis of her mother’s distant, self-centered ways. Ashley Judd appears in flashback as the young Vivi, who, during the 1930s and ’40s, undergoes a series of Lifetime tragedies that culminate in embitterment, pharmaceutical dementia, and a temporary lull in elfin perkiness. Back in the present day, the newly contrite Vivi and her momentarily sober pals induct duly forgiving Sidda into the Ya-Yas.
Khouri and Andrus enliven the stultifying artlessness of Wells’s plotting, and even sneak in some well-observed moments among the hoary, codependency-movement clichés. If Ya-Ya ultimately stumbles over its own precarious contrivances (Sidda’s obliviousness to her mother’s past, Vivi’s convenient but motiveless rage), it does so in the ambling, inoffensive manner unique to the Southern chick flick. That said, the milieu is wholly unconvincing (poverty and racism are acknowledged only insofar as they’re surmounted by a food fight) and the histrionics reach a truly annoying pitch. The film is spared from complete futility by Khouri’s deft handling of an unusually engaged cast (Flanagan and Smith delight in wrapping their tongues around Louisiana accents). The extraneous male contingent is best represented by James Garner, who, as Sidda’s father, embodies the gentlemanly virtues of acquiescence and near invisibility. It may be faint praise to say so, but he does a bang-up job.
Powerful males also don’t figure much into the three shorts that comprise Mama Africa (Wellspring, opens June 7). Presented (i.e., needlessly explained) by Queen Latifah, the films—the Namibian Uno’s World, Hang Time from Nigeria, and South Africa’s Raya—offer life lessons for young-adult viewers about growing up under the guidance of strong female figures. These after-school specials are distinctly depoliticized and seem tailored for Western audiences, so the African settings feel oddly superfluous. Were it not for the notable dearth of morally instructive kids’ movies in this country, the same might be said of theproject as a whole.
Imogen Kimmel’s Secret Society (First Run, opens June 7 at the Quad) is an even odder choice for stateside release. Modeled on the fuzzy-wuzzy dynamics of The Full Monty, it follows chubby Yorkshire factory worker Daisy (the lovely but bland Charlotte Brittain) as she achieves personal triumph as a member of a clandestine group of women Sumo wrestlers. It’s a barely veiled “big is beautiful” message movie, but if you can shake the feeling that the whole thing is just a setup for an unfortunate fetish video, there’s a certain gutsy allure to the wildly improbable proceedings.
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