Though it misses greatness by a few heavy-handed instances, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a rarity among teen movies: it features young women who measure their worth by the strength of their character instead of the boyfriend they land just in time for prom night. The film is adapted from Ann Brashares’ popular novel, which tells of four girls who, after finding a pair of jeans that mysteriously fits them all, decide to take turns wearing it on their respective summer adventures. Whether the pants are magical or made of unstable molecules is never revealed, but then that’s not the point.
The operative word in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is “sisterhood”, not “pants”. Serving merely as a framing device, an excuse for the movie to leap back and forth between four separate coming-of-age stories, the magical jeans are, in fact, a bit of a distraction throughout the film, adding a layer of artificiality to otherwise compelling character moments. Thankfully, they only affect the plot on three occasions, which are particularly well handled. The pants’ true crime is their prominence in the promotional image, which looks like a rejected logo for Degrassi Junior High.
My favourite storyline focuses on Bridget (Blake Lively), whom her therapist describes as “determined to the point of recklessness”. Spending the summer at a soccer retreat in California, the sixteen-year-old girl starts an aggressive campaign to seduce Eric (Mike Vogel), an older camp coach, but her motives may have less to do with attraction than grief over her mother’s suicide. The subplot ends on a perfect note, striking a delicate balance between fairy tale magic and bittersweet reality.
Bridget’s opposite number is the prudish and quietly observant Lena (Alexis Bledel). While visiting her grandparents on an unbelievably gorgeous Greek island, she falls in love with a local named Kostas (Michael Rady), but an old family feud stands in the way of their romance. The premise is, of course, incredibly tired, yet the film finds a refreshing angle, focusing solely on Lena’s growth as a person. I particularly enjoyed the way the young woman uses insight instead of blind passion to resolve the situation.
Tibby’s (Amber Tamblyn) summer vacation is far less glamorous. To finance her “suckumentary”, the acerbic teenager gets a job at the local Wall-Mart substitute, where she meets Bailey (Jenna Boyd), a sick twelve-year-old who becomes her production assistant. Though the two young actresses maintain their edge even in the most manipulative scenes, the story follows every melodramatic cliché in the formula, and its conclusion, involving a lost video message, is particularly cringe-inducing.
The final plot thread tells of Carmen (America Ferrera), who idealizes her relationship with her divorced father, Al (Bradley Whitford). Excited to be spending the summer with her dad, the half Puerto Rican girl gets a brutal awakening when he introduces her to his new family. Though the presence of the pants at the end feels a bit forced, the movie depicts Carmen’s emotional journey with depth and sincerity. There’s something heartbreaking in the way the ordeal subtly plays into her insecurities about race and body image.
Carmen’s storyline also stands out for being the only one in which all the heroines actively participate. The four subplots remain otherwise independent with just a few superficial connections, which is not to say the crossover scenes themselves ring hallow. Lena’s maternal concern for Bridget is, in fact, quite touching. Also of note is the interaction between Carmen and Tibby, whose understanding of the world is undergoing tremendous changes, making it difficult to relate to her friend’s domestic issues.
Unfortunately, the paternal figures in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants aren’t handled with nearly as much tact. The girls’ fathers are either absent from the film or cartoonishly insensitive. The way Al deals with Carmen’s runaway act made me want to call social services, and Bridget’s father is so ludicrously distant his only communication with her is a typed letter containing three sentences: “Sounds like you’re having a great time. I knew you would. Everything is fine here at home.”
I’m going to repeat in case you haven’t considered the implications: Bridget’s father sent a typed letter containing three sentences. Clearly, this man has little time for his daughter. What I can’t understand is why he didn’t just jot a few thoughts on a piece of paper and mail it. Instead, he turned on his computer, launched its word processor, opened a blank document, typed his seventeen words, printed the page, signed it, and then sent the letter to the post office, all presumably so he could make his teenage girl feel like crap.
Though these minor excesses are undeniably distracting, they take little away from the film’s achievements. How many teen flicks address sexuality without glorifying the matter or turning it into something vulgar? How many deal with divorce, grief, and family in such a thoughtful way? While most movies of the genre are about self-centered misfits falling in love with the popular quarterback or the lonesome nerd who worships them, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants encourages young women to celebrate their intelligence and inner strength. For this reason alone, it’s worth recommending.