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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
from Film Forum, 02/07/02

In the big-screen adaptation of the bestseller Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, Maggie Smith, and Ellen Burstyn star in Callie Khouri's directorial debut about oddball Southern women who learn lessons in love, forgiveness, and understanding.

from Film Forum, 06/13/02

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a fancy way of saying "Sentimental Reminiscences of a Bunch of Talkative Southern Women."

I can personally testify that the book of the same name has been a bestseller. Having taken the bus to work for ten years, I'd say Ya-Ya is one of the titles I've seen being read the most. There's something about those saucy personalities, the secret social scandals, and the drawn-out drawling that is still appealing to readers six years after the book's publication. And the themes—what forgiveness can do to a grudge, what friendship and ritual can do for a community—ring true with readers and apparently with movie audiences too. Ya-Ya was the second most popular movie ticket of the week. Not bad for a bunch of belles, considering they're up against Obi-Wan Kenobi, Spider-Man, and Jack Ryan.

Critics, however, are asking for more than colorful personalities and honorable themes.

A critic at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not entirely pleased. "In the way it presents women's relationships, particularly Southern women, the film sporadically makes an emotional connection with the audience. And the talented cast and snappy dialogue soften the high melodrama of the talky film. But more often than not, it may leave viewers dissatisfied with its frugal character development which often crosses the line into caricature."

Phil Boatwright agrees: "Although the film has a superb cast up to anything a writer can throw at them, the material becomes downright silly. It's slick, but with a superficial handling of adult subject matter. With an unconvincing, syrupy ending, the film loses any genuine poignancy."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) thinks the pros outweigh the cons. "Callie Khouri … has assembled a dream cast of solid female talent who build a seamless ensemble. There isn't a weak or careless performance amongst them. The constant flashbacks and the fact that multiple actresses play each character at various stages in the timeline can sometimes get a bit disorienting, but the strength of the characterizations and the richness of the relationships are such that it becomes easy to forgive any rough spots in the telling or structure of the story."

Some Christian critics would prefer that these multifaceted characters were portrayed with fewer character flaws. Paul Bicking (Preview) writes, "Despite the positive messages about friendship and reconciliation … [Ya-Ya] suffers from too much vulgar ya-ya. The wry comments are often humorous, but the dialogue is also laced with numerous obscenities, crude terms, and God's name used in vain." Likewise, Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) argues, "Unfortunately, in portraying the gutsy feminine heroes, filmmakers include some traits that are not so admirable, including smoking, drinking, and cussing." But she concludes that it has "lots of good things to say about families, fear and forgiveness, and may even challenge viewers to work through issues in their own families to avoid passing pain on to future generations."

Halyna Barannik (Christian Spotlight) is bothered by "explicit and implicit reference to magic. The ya-yas perform a blood ritual to cement their eternal bond to each other and they pray to nature, worshipping forces and spirits other than God." And Lisa Rice and Annabelle Robertson (Movieguide) point to "its pagan worldview that touts secret ceremonies with chanting, blood pacts, and soul ties." And yet they conclude, "Above any other movie in recent memory, this movie perfectly demonstrates how the Bible speaks of the sins of the parents being passed down to the children. The movie is a fabulous study in the terrible consequences of avoiding religiosity and living apart from a true relationship with God. It also is a stinging reminder of the pain of racism and a beautiful picture of how forgiveness covers a multitude of sins."

In spite of its flaws, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says he finds it "a fairly painless experience. [I] have little doubt that true Ya-Yas will embrace it as this summer's Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias." He does, however, caution us: "Don't try to make sense of the timeline, which has Vivi as a child (played by 13-year-old Caitlin Wachs) … but finds her all grown up and played by Ashley Judd … a couple of years later. (It gets worse: Sidda is born in the early 1950s, but is played in the present by Sandra Bullock!)"

Mainstream critics had similarly mixed feelings. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) complains, "There is not a character in the movie with a shred of plausibility, not an event that is believable, not a confrontation that is not staged, not a moment that is not false. For their sins, the sisterhood should be forced to spend the rest of their lives locked in a Winnebago camper. Why do gifted actresses appear in such slop?"