Dir: Callie Khouri. US. 2002. 116 mins.

With millions of loyal readers waiting eagerly to see their fictional heroines made real on screen, Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, based on Rebecca Wells' 1996 international best-seller, is primed to become the must-see chick flick of the 2002 summer. Fans will be happy to find that, under the first-time direction of Thelma And Louise writer Callie Khouri, the film captures much of the novel's sassy Southern charm and, through its impressive ensemble cast, brings Wells' characters enjoyably to life. What the fans - and, crucially, broader audiences - might find lacking are the really big emotional highs and lows sometimes delivered by this kind of material. Warner's fan-based marketing effort will certainly pull in several generations of Ya-Ya Sisters (which have sprung up across the US and in the UK) for the film's June 7 US opening after its premiere at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. Attracting the male and non-aficionado moviegoers necessary to turn Divine Secrets into a blockbuster could, however, prove a tougher task.

Like earlier female-skewed hits Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, Divine Secrets focuses on the lives and loves of a group of feisty Southern women. The script, written by Khouri from an adaptation by Mark Andrus (Life As A House), draws on Wells' lesser-known first novel, Little Altars Everywhere, as well as her breakthrough work to tell an episodic story set in both the present day and forties Louisiana.

In the present day, Sidda Walker (Bullock) is a New York-based playwright whose difficult relationship with her Southern belle mother Vivi (Burstyn) threatens her engagement to the sensitive and handsome Connor (MacFadyen). Benignly kidnapped by three of her mother's longtime friends (Smith, Flanagan and Knight) - the now ageing members of secret schoolgirl club the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Sidda is whisked off to her idyllic childhood home. There the 'sisters' reveal to her the trials faced by the fiercely independent Vivi as a teen and (as played by Judd) young mother.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks linked by contemporary scenes involving Sidda, Connor, Vivi, her infinitely patient husband (Garner) and the other Ya-Yas. Playing initially for fairly broad laughs, the film becomes gradually more dramatic in tone, though even when serious topics are broached they are never dwelt on for long (a glimpse of Southern racism, for example, quickly dissolves into a slapstick food fight). Only in its latter stages does the film tackle the book's darker themes, as the youthful Vivi suffers the nervous breakdown that will colour her adult relationship with Sidda. The episodic structure keeps the pace lively, but it also limits the film's emotional momentum. In place of the novel's sometimes flowery prose, the film offers a warm-hued visual style and a soundtrack (compiled by O Brother Where Art Thou's T Bone Burnett) that juxtaposes period Americana with contemporary pop from the likes of Macy Gray, Lauryn Hill and Bob Dylan.

The ensemble cast is the film's strongest asset, though its size means that only a few of the performers are allowed room to stretch. Bullock's role provides little more than punctuation for much of the story and, as the mature Ya-Yas, veteran talents Smith, Flanagan and Knight act as a kind of boozy, bickering Greek chorus. Judd and Burstyn get to do most of the real acting and both do excellent work in nicely shaded roles.

Prod cos: Gaylord Films, All Girl Productions
US dist: Warner Bros
Int'l dist: Warner Bros
Bonnie Bruckheimer, Hunt Lowry
Exec prods:
Bette Midler, Mary McLaglen, E K Gaylord II, Lisa Stewart
Callie Khouri, Mark Andrus, based on the novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
Cinematography: John Bailey
Prod des: David J Bomba
Ed: Andrew Marcus
Music: T Bone Burnett, David Mansfield
Main cast: Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, James Garner, Ashley Judd, Shirley Knight, Angus MacFadyen, Maggie Smith