Four of Hollywood's smartest young actresses play lifelong best friends in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
The title of the film, which opened yesterday, refers to a magical pair of blue jeans that fit each girl perfectly despite their very different body types. The producers were lucky to get Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera, Blake Lively and Amber Tamblyn to even read the script, let alone get past that gimmick.
"That script just sat on my desk for months," admits Ferrara, star of the acclaimed independent drama Real Women Have Curves and an international relations major at University of Southern California. "My agent was like, 'Have you read it? Have you read it?' I'm like, 'I'll get to it,' and I finally did, begrudgingly so.
"But halfway through, I thought, 'Wow, this is great.' I wasn't expecting this story of teenagers to have such complexity, because what we're so used to seeing these days are such stereotyped, very petty problems."
"What was really special when I first read it was how it didn't stereotype women, which I think is a rarity for films about young women," adds Tamblyn, headliner of the just-canceled Joan of Arcadia. "Even though there were issues going on outside of the group, the girls' strength was still in the core of their bond, their friendship."
Based on Ann Brashares' best selling novel, the film indeed covers such subjects as ethnic identity, forbidden love, forbidden lust, communication barriers with parents, outgrowing adolescent nihilism and coping with death. And all without a single prom or catfight over some boy or anyone turning into a princess.
The pants thing, though? As three of the four friends head off to different parts of the world during their 16th summer, they agree to ship the jeans back and forth to one another, along with letters describing their experiences.
"The story has a clothing hook in the title because that's important in a market that's saturated with material for teenage girls," notes Bledel, who plays daughter Rory on the highly literate TV series Gilmore Girls. "To throw this delicately told story about families and friendship and emotions and things that do matter out there without any kind of hook, it might get lost, and nobody would be interested."
Brashares, who says more than 3.2 million copies of Sisterhood and its two sequels are in print, knows that her readership won't be all that surprised, except for maybe a few minor changes in some of the characters' stories.
"The spirit of the movie is a wonderful expression of the spirit of the book," the author declares. "One of the things that made me happy about it was that I feel like the movie is very emotional and very raw. It doesn't sort of tie everything up and over-package it and over-process it. It's raw, and I hope it's evocative, and in that way it's very much what I'm trying to do as a writer. Though there are differences, and I think for good reasons, the essence of it is very much in the movie. It's a successful adaptation in that sense."
Director Ken Kwapis saw Sisterhood as kind of a distaff version of one of the favorite films from his youth, George Lucas' American Graffiti. Like that one, this was about four teenage friends who learn a lot about life separately and whose relationships with one another evolve when they get back together.
"It seems like, on one hand, there are films about teenage girls that are incredibly edgy, wonderful films like thirteen," says Kwapis, known for his TV work on The Larry Sanders Show, Malcolm in the Middle and The Office. "And at the other extreme end of the spectrum are fantasies for girls. We were all aware that we were making something that will, hopefully, be a refreshing antidote to that. There seems to be this enormous place in between, where a film like this - that can be really honest and yet still be accessible - should live."
For the quartet's only teenager, Burbank High School senior Lively, becoming fast friends with her adult co-stars made her first acting job a terrifically enjoyable experience.
"We were crazy," says class president Lively, who up to now has eschewed the family business (her father, Ernie, plays her dad in the movie, her mom is a talent manager and her four siblings all act) for school-related pursuits. "It was actually difficult to work with us because we were in our own world and just talked all the time." As with her more experienced co-stars, though, even considering a project with this name was a major hurdle.
But Ferrara sums up the general feeling about the determinedly serious movie with the frivolous central concept.
"You don't get to understand this until you see the movie, but it's not a story about pants at all," she explains. "The pants kind of disappear. At the end, we say with or without the pants, this would have happened to us anyway."
For film events, see Page 34.