Coming-of-age stories have been a nearly century-long cinematic tradition, and before film, they were plentiful in the literary world. Even if the details haven't changed much when it comes to their storylines, their interest never seems to flag (if done well). Why? Because the delicate, at times messy, passage from childhood to adulthood, fraught with disappointments, heartache, and exciting newfound freedom, is one that every person must go through. In effect, just about anyone can relate to the coming-of-age genre, as long as they still have it in them to remember and understand just what it was like to "grow up."
Based on the best-selling young adult novel by Ann Brashares, evidently much-loved by teen and pre-teen girls (and, if the screening attended was any indication, some adult women too), perhaps the best compliment to be given to "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is that one certainly does not need to be female to enjoy this heartfelt entertainment. The gently told, if at times melodramatic, material extends to both sexes, as well as all races and ethnicities, making it a possible contender for one of the sleeper hits of the summer.
Reminding favorably of 1995's "Now and Then," also about the maturation of four best friends, and only demonstrating what a paper-thin fraud 2002's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
" really was by comparison, the unfortunately-titled "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" wades through natural, unforced laughs, knowledgeable wisdom, and a sturdy helping of the saccharine that, manipulative or not, actually works. I'd be lying if I didn't admit the waterworks started to lightly flow on at least two separate occasions.
The pants of the title are adopted by four tight-knit friends entering the summer before their senior year of high school because, through a bizarre, possibly magical, force of nature, they are able to perfectly fit all of their very different body types. With each of them going their separates ways, their plan is to mail the pants to each other across the globe throughout the summer as a way of symbolically sticking together and hopefully bringing them good luck. The shy, uncomfortable-in-her-own-skin Lena (Alexis Bledel) goes to stay with her grandparents on a Greek island where they live, and in the process must grapple with her burgeoning feelings for hunky fisherman Kostas (Michael Rady). Go-getter Bridget (Blake Lively) heads off to an illustrious soccer camp in Mexico, where she pursues a romantic relationship with her college-aged coach (Mike Vogel) in an attempt to get her mind off of her mother's recent death. The full-figured Carmen (America Ferrera) is excited about getting to spend some time with her semi-estranged dad (Bradley Whitford) in South Carolina until her hopes come crashing down with the unwanted appearance of a fiancée (Nancy Travis) and her two teenage children. That leaves cynical Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) to fend for herself back home in Bethesda, Maryland, where she whiles away her boring days working at a drugstore. In attempting to make what she labels a "suckumentary," Tibby befriends 12-year-old Bailey (Jenna Boyd), a worldly girl with a secret who becomes her production assistant.
Directed by Ken Kwapis, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is episodic in nature, constantly moving between four separate settings and characters with their own story arcs. This method does not always work, but, by and large, it does here, thanks to exceptionally layered performances from Amber Tamblyn (2002's "The Ring
"), Alexis Bledel (2005's "Sin City
"), America Ferrera (2005's "Lords of Dogtown
"), and newcomer Blake Lively. These four, both together and apart, form a palpably close relationship with each other and the viewer, as they are smart, free-thinking young women one could easily imagine being friends with. Narrowing in on any one performance is fruitless; they are all tremendous actresses with bright careers ahead of them, each making their character their own and dedicating themselves to the heavy emotions and colorful personalities required of them.
If the screenplay by Delia Ephron (2000's "Hanging Up
") and Elizabeth Chandler (2003's "What a Girl Wants
") does a fine job of bringing Ann Brashere's novel to life and seguing from one story to the next, not all of said stories are met with equal success. Each one could be turned into its own feature-length film, but together there is a lack of development to make them have the full impact they are going for. Less interesting of the bunch, although not without its respective merit, is Bridget's experiences at the soccer camp. Her relationship with the coach, Eric, isn't afforded enough time for the viewer to care, even though the outcome chooses refreshing realism over storybook fantasy. The same might be said of Lena's journey to Greece and her own romance with Kostas, but this story, too, redeems itself with a winsomely romantic scene near the end and added conflict between herself and her set-in-their-ways grandparents.
That leaves the time spent with Carmen and Tibby most emotionally involving, as they are not forced into a love story and must face some dark experiences on their own. Carmen's imploding relationship with her father, who seems to be too busy with his new family to give her the time of day, hits all the right notes, and America Ferrera handles some tricky dramatic scenes with a heartbreaking candidness, none more so than a call she makes to her dad where her bottled-up feelings finally come pouring out. As for Tibby, her dull summer job at Wallmans, going through the motions of her work and in her interaction with fellow employees and the manager, is handled exactly as such high school jobs really are. Furthermore, her unlikely friendship with the younger, troubled Bailey is simple and touching.
By the time the fourth or so crying scene arrives during the somewhat cluttered climax (there is a death, a wedding, a meaningful videotape discovered, among other things), the weepiness approaches going overboard. By then, however, these accurately drawn friends have grown on the viewer enough that what happens to them genuinely matters. "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," which is the first in a series of books, could make for a solid filmic introduction to further, more-than-welcome adventures for this foursome if this one is a box-office hit. Far from groundbreaking, and not without a certain unevenness as one tale leads to the next and back again, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is, nonetheless, a warm-hearted, enjoyable diversion, much shrewder than could be expected from such a hopelessly contrived, gender-targeted title.