The bonds of friendship are shown to be both unbreakable and imponderable in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a guaranteed weeper (for mostly the right reasons) in which four teenage friends use a pair of blue jeans as both a bond and an excuse - a glue that holds them together physically and a mandate that keeps them connected emotionally.
Based on Ann Brashares' novel, Pants certainly comes up lacking in the originality department. Each of the four friends suffers from all-too-familiar manifestations of teen angst. Shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) meets a boy able to crack open her shell, only to discover he's Romeo to her Juliet, complete with warring families; brazen Bridget (Blake Lively) longs for both her dead mother and emotionally shut-off father; rebellious Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) defiantly follows her own path, until she meets someone who depends on her; and chubby Carmen (America Ferrera) needs a dad who sees who she is, not what she isn't.
The four girls, all born within a week of each other in Bethesda (although an occasional Maryland Lottery sign pops up, Pants was filmed largely in Vancouver), have been fast friends forever. But they're 16 now, and for the first time, some of them will be spending the summer elsewhere - Lena's staying with her grandparents in Greece, while Bridget hones her All-American athletic skills at a soccer camp in Mexico and Carmen settles in for three months with her father in Charleston.
Only Tibby isn't going anywhere. She'll be working as a stock clerk at the local Wal-Mart clone, saving money so she can buy more video equipment and finish the documentary she's been working on.
Naturally, these four girls couldn't be more different. But their commitment to one another is total. Pants understands that friends don't reflect each other so much as fill in the gaps.
Their bond manifests itself in a pair of magical jeans they chance upon at a clothing store; although the four vary greatly in body shape, the jeans fit each snugly. Knowing a metaphor when they see one, the four pledge to spend the summer wearing them for a week at a time, then mailing them to each other.
And so they're off, Lena to meet a Greek hunk, Bridget a handsome soccer coach, Carmen an extended family she never knew about and Tibby a sidekick who refuses to let her own troubles drag her down.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants switches continually between the four, offering three- to five-minute glimpses of each girl's summer as they seek out - sometimes unknowingly - the one person each needs in her life. Often, just as one story is picking up speed, the narrative switches scenes, effectively letting the air out of the movie's tires. Although the technique does reinforce the idea of the four friends functioning as one entity, it might have been wiser to tell more substantial parts of each story at a time.
Adults have little place in Pants, save for Bradley Whitford as Carmen's heel of a father - a cad made even more loathsome by his refusal to act like one. Whitford's character is so devoid of redeeming qualities as to be something of a joke. Yes, his comeuppance, when Carmen finally tells him off, marks the emotional high-water mark of the film, but it feels too calculated. Ferrera, so winning in Real Women Have Curves, is a fine actress, and her performance - especially in this scene - is honestly affecting. Neither she nor her character needs the extra help.
Tamblyn, who works alongside Jenna Boyd as 12-year-old Bailey, also amps up the emotions in her key scene. And while that scene, too, seems overly calculated (a character dies, always a surefire emotion-grabber), Tamblyn and Boyd manage to pull it off, largely because of the believably tenuous relationship the two have been developing throughout the movie.
This is not a great film by any means, too filled with stock characters in stock situations for such praise. But if offers screen time for some fine young actresses, and addresses its story to an audience of teen girls who deserve something to identify with. Tibby, Lena, Bridget and Carmen are not girls in trouble, of whom there is no shortage in the cinematic world. They're girls trying to cope with the pressures endemic to every adolescent, making them quiet heroes and welcome role models.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Starring Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Blake Lively
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated PG (thematic elements, sexuality, language)
Time 119 minutes
Sun Score ***