The first thing to be said about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is that, as an adaptation of a work of popular fiction, it sure beats stuff like Cold Mountain and The Bridges of Madison County. Translating a beloved best seller to the screen with faithfulness to both the book’s moods and themes is tricky indeed, but Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler have taken Ann Brashares’s book about four teenage girls who discover a pair of jeans that will fit all their various body types and made it . . . not ridiculous.
The second thing to be said about this movie is that you won’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m talking about unless you are a teenager or have one in your home. Brashares’s megasellers (there are three in the series thus far) are very much a teen-girl phenomenon, tapping into their target audience’s fears and insecurities about body image and boys, as well as the joy they take in sharing those insecurities with each other (the luckiness of having best friends).
For these reasons, the movie could have been haplessly mawkish or (even more likely from the Hollywood sausage-making factory) turned the tale into a safe ripoff of a hit: a nice-girl version of Mean Girls. Fortunately, director Ken Kwapis, who’s done a lot of briskly unsentimental TV work with young people—Malcolm in the Middle, most notably—knows how to avoid mawk, keeps the squawk to a minimum, and gets wonderful performances out of at least two of the sisterhood, Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel as the modest Lena, and America Ferrera (Real Women Have Curves) as the stubborn Carmen.
Okay, the pants: The four girls—Joan of Arcadia’s Amber Tamblyn as the moody Tibby and Blake Lively as the glossy Bridget round out the quartet—come across them while shopping one day. Once they discover the garment’s odd ability to expand and contract to fit only these young women, they form the sisterhood of the title, complete with rules (No. 1: “You must never wash the pants”) and a promise to share them.
As they separate for the summer for different activities (for example, Lena goes to Greece to visit her grandparents and meets a hunky fisherman–college student; Bridget goes to a soccer camp in Mexico), they mail the pants back and forth to each other. Whenever one dons them, some life-altering event occurs, good and bad. Lena falls in love, but Carmen gets a crushing surprise: Thinking she’s going to spend all summer alone with her divorced dad (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford), she arrives to discover that he’s living with a woman she’s never met (but we have—Nancy Travis, from So I Married an Axe Murderer and the Ted Danson sitcom Becker), who has her own kids. And that the couple is getting married. Immediately. So much for quality time with Dad.
The film is filled with positive messages (it doesn’t matter what shape your body is, it’s inner sharpness that counts; Rule No. 10 is “Love your pals, love yourself”), and it’s shot with candy-color brightness, so that even when Lena’s grandparents forbid her to see the Greek boy, or Bridget is spurned by her blond-god soccer coach, everything still looks rosy, like a young people’s movie should. But deeper than that, Sisterhood suggests that while grown-ups may be unreliable and inadvertent teachers of poor self-image, one’s peers can buck up a girl’s morale without antidepressants, and jeans can be more than a dress-down fashion statement: They can symbolize the arbitrary but comforting element of chance that makes adolescence as exciting and giggly as it is scary and unpredictable.