Just what is the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? As depicted in ”Divine Secrets,” think the Powerpuff Girls with AARP cards. ”Thelma & Louise” screenwriter Khouri makes her directorial debut with a sprawling Southern tale about friendship and family, based on Rebecca Wells’ best-selling 1996 novel. Bullock plays Sidda Lee, a New York-based playwright who has a troubled relationship with her mother, Vivi (Burstyn). When the two stop talking before Sidda Lee’s wedding, Vivi’s oldest friends (Smith, Flanagan, and Knight) step in and attempt to negotiate a truce.
Since the movie portrays the characters at three different stages in their lives, Judd, who appears in flashbacks as the young Vivi, ended up being the odd woman out on the North Carolina set. ”We never worked at the same time,” says Burstyn. ”Ashley and I got together before shooting and talked about Vivi.” Flanagan, who bonded with Smith and Knight over trips to the mall during days off, also met her younger self (Jacqueline McKenzie) before the cameras rolled. ”I’ve never had the experience of watching an actress playing me in her late 20s and 30s,” she notes. ”There’s a certain bittersweet quality to that.”
There’s an equally bittersweet quality to the story; while it’s essentially a love song to loyalty, there are also harrowing moments of mothering at its meanest. Vivi is capable of great cruelty – fueled in part by the alcohol that seems as much a part of the landscape as the Spanish moss; she’s a woman who ”has a lot of wonderful qualities and a lot of scary qualities,” says Burstyn. ”It gets to dark places,” acknowledges Khouri, who also sees that as the film’s strength. ”Men who have seen it get very defensive if I call it a chick flick. They say it’s about relationships and family, and they don’t want to be excluded.”