This is a film about mother/daughter relationships and about unconditional love. Despite being marked by fine performances, the film never really grabs the viewer, at least, not this viewer. While moderately enjoyable, I found the film to fall a little flat, as the whole Ya-Ya thing left me cold, finding it all a bit silly.
Not having read the book of the same name upon which the film is based, I had no frame of reference. Judging strictly on the merits of the film, I found that it has its ups and downs. The name of the film is apparently derived from a childhood club to which a group of lifelong friends belonged as children in which they were all Ya-Ya priestesses. These friends, of which Vivi (Ellyn Burstyn) is at the center of this story, are all trying to reconcile Vivi to her daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock). The friends, as well as Vivi, are all aging southern belles from Louisiana. Sidda, however, has moved North, where she is a budding, successful playwright.
Sidda had a traumatic childhood, as her mother is a mercurial woman with a drinking problem. It seems that Vivi never got over losing her childhood sweetheart during the war. She married another man, Shep Walker (James Garner), Sidda's father and a man who has loved Vivi unconditionally throughout their entire married life, and proceeded to put her husband and her children through a living hell. Still, Vivi and Sidda manage to plod along as so many mothers and daughters do, until Vivi goes too far and Sidda decides that enough is enough.
The story of Vivi, Sidda, and Shep is told in flashbacks, which provide the most interesting parts of the movie. Ashley Judd is simply sensational as the young Vivi, and she outshines all the film and stage veterans in this film, infusing the role with a gritty reality. David Lee Smith is very good as the hunky young Shep, the husband who tries to understand a mercurial wife who has become unbalanced by her longing for what could never be.
Ellen Burstyn, as the senior Vivi, is not as compelling as the younger one portrayed by Ashley Judd. The senior Vivi comes across as a silly, petulant, spoiled, self-absorbed woman who needs a good swift kick in the butt. Consequently, the viewer cares very little for what happens to her, even though she is eventually reconciled to her daughter and comes to appreciate her patient, selfless husband.
Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, and Shirley Knight are all excellent as Vivi's lifelong friends, though Ms. Smith occasionally seems to have a bit of difficulty suppressing her British accent. They inject a touch of humor into their attempts to reconcile the estranged Vivi and Sidda, which is a good counterpoint to the underlying pathos of the film. Sandra Bullock is also excellent as the fed up Sidda, who has said that enough is enough. As in all her film, she charms the viewer. James Garner is wonderful as Vivi's long suffering husband, who comes to be appreciated by Vivi only at the end.
Unfortunately, the director appears to have striven for mawkishness. This alone is enough for me to counsel viewers to rent, and not buy, this film.