I hate the term “chick flick.” My theory is that if a movie is good, it can be enjoyed by anybody, regardless of what demographic they fit into. Case in point: earlier this year I enjoyed a picture called Ice Princess which was targeted at pre-teen girls. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is another example of a film that transcends the audience it is marketed toward.
This is the story of four girls growing up in Maryland who find a magical pair of pants that fits each of them perfectly despite the fact that they all have different body types. As they prepare to go in different directions for the summer, the girls make a pact to each wear the magic pants for one week, then send them on to the next girl. They will collectively keep a diary of what happens while wearing the “magic” pants.
Lena (Alexis Bledel) goes the furthest from home, travelling to Greece to visit her grandparents. While there, she meets a nice boy, Kostos (Michael Rady), only to discover that his family has a long-standing feud with hers. Although she’s falling in love, her grandparents forbid her to see Kostos. Later, the pants go to Carmen (America Ferrera). Carmen is spending the summer in North Carolina with her father (Bradley Whitford). She arrives to discover that he’s about to marry a woman with two children of her own; in other words, he’s got a whole new family which she’s not part of. There’s also an undercurrent of racial tension, as Carmen is Puerto Rican and her father’s new family is very WASPish.
Bridget (Blake Lively) gets the pants while at soccer camp in Mexico. She’s still struggling to understand the suicide of her mother. These confused feelings cause her to be “single-minded to the point of recklessness.” Bridget becomes obsessed with gaining the attention of a slightly older male soccer coach, Eric (Mike Vogel), who is supposed to be off-limits. Her desire to get what she wants ultimately causes her to make a major life decision without thinking. Then there’s Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), a non-conformist and a pessimist trying to make a documentary about human misery. She strikes up an unlikely (and extremely tentative) friendship with Bailey (Jenna Boyd), a terminally ill 12-year old who passed out at the department store where Tibby works.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants probably sounds like one of those movies where a bunch of teenage girls all learn important Life Lessons over the course of a summer. And, in fact, that’s exactly what this movie is. What makes the picture so good is that it doesn’t shy away from harsh realities; it digs deeper than you might expect. Whereas some movies might keep everything on a sitcom level, Sisterhood deals head-on with teen emotions. For instance, there is a very affecting scene in which Carmen finally confronts her father about his apparent preference for his new family over his old one. Or, later, the story tenderly addresses one character’s regret over a sexual encounter she gave in to for all the wrong reasons. Based on the novel by Ann Brashares, Sisterhood depicts young women who seem real dealing with issues that feel real.
The actresses all do wonderful work with their roles. Tamblyn (from TV’s “Joan of Arcadia”) nails Tibby’s incessant negativity and also her unexpected discovery that there are things in the world worth caring about. Bledel (from “Gilmore Girls” and Sin City) captures the awakening of young love, specifically the desire to love whom we choose rather than who we’re told to love. Newcomer Blake Lively makes a strong impression as the more-troubled-than-she-looks Bridget. Especially at the end, the actress gets to show us the wounded soul beneath the character’s hotsy-totsy exterior.
The best performance, perhaps, comes from America Ferrera (who initially made a splash in the Sundance favorite Real Women Have Curves). She makes Carmen smart, self-aware, and immensely likeable. Her scenes with Bradley Whitford are deeply moving because they capture the heartbreaking sorrow of a girl who (only half-rightly) believes that her father has emotionally abandoned her in favor of his step-children. There’s little doubt that Ferrera is at the start of a long, promising movie career.
If films like this have a flaw, it’s that occasionally one or two of the stories are more compelling than the others. In this case, the subplot involving Lena is good but not quite as strong as the others. However, director Ken Kwapis balances out the four subplots nicely. He and his cast convince us that these girls are bonded, even when they aren't on screen at the same time. The sense of female friendship rings true.
“Friendship” is the key word to use when describing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. After all, it’s not really the pants that are magic – it’s the empowering friendship of the girls. I have no doubt that this movie will be seen by adolescent girls (for whom it has a very positive message) and some adult women. I’d like to appeal to everyone else, specifically to those who will avoid Sisterhood under the pretense that it’s not “for” them. Here is a smart, sophisticated, mature movie that just happens to have four teenage girls as its main characters. The themes it deals with – friendship, love, family, sexuality – are identifiable for most (if not all) of us. The pants amazingly fit four very different girls and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is likely to fit different kinds of moviegoers, even if it doesn’t look that way on the surface. You just have to be willing to try it on.
( out of four)
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
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