Engaging even when relegated to narrator, America Ferrera is the most compelling reason to see The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (Plus, she deserves extra points for surviving an awesomely silly role in Lords of Dogtown.) The designated “aspiring writer” in this coming of age film, Ferrera’s Carmen is alternately immature and admirably responsible, a girl getting to know herself, trust in her friends, and forgive the fallibility of adults.
Alternately sentimental and sensible, this story of four high school friends is for the most part respectful of the girls at its center and its presumed preteenish audience. Based on Ann Brashares’ novel, Sisterhood is premised on a “magical” moment, as four girls, about to separate for the summer, wander into a thrift shop and discover a pair of blue jeans that fits all their different body sizes perfectly. This even though “big” girl Carmen resists even trying them on. And well she should, as they cling to the narrow butts of her three best friends — Lena (Alexis Bledel), Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), and Bridget (Blake Lively). Still, the narrative’s conceit is that the pants are flexible, and moreover, travel — the girls mail them off to one another, and they appear to bring valuable experience to each girl in turn.
They mail the jeans to one another, along with letters to keep up with what’s happening in each other’s lives. During their vacations, they explore their emerging, individual independence, while also figuring out how to maintain relationships with their families and with each other.
Though the movie is structured as a series of episodes and the girls are introduced as types, these pieces also push against their overt limitations, with varying degrees of success. The story bits are laid out like this: shy Lena is sent off to Greece to visit relatives for the summer, where she meets a beautiful Greek Adonis sort, ideally suited for her difficult temperament and willing to educate her in the ways of sympathy for someone else, but rejected instantly by her family because of a long-running local feud. Golden girl Bridget is still grieving over her mother’s suicide and feeling distanced from her father (played by Blake’s real life father, Ernie Lively); heading off to Mexico for soccer camp, she acts out by pursuing one of her coaches, a lithe blond boyo who is supposed to be “off limits” to players (her antics occasionally go overboard, as when she pours water on her t-shirt to get his attention).
Tibby is an aspiring artist and documentary-maker, feeling particularly grumpy and resentful because unlike her friends, she’s stuck working at a local Wal-Mart-type store for the summer. Tibby’s artistic inclinations, combined with her anger, lead to a particular kind of self-expression, adjusted when she becomes friends with 12-year-old Bailey (Jenna Boyd). (At times, Bailey is quite annoyingly too precious; “What’s a documentary?” she sets up Tibby, who answers, “Like a movie, only boring”). Determined to be Tibby’s friend and to help her make her film, Bailey totes equipment unasked and whenever she’s tagging along for a shoot, asks interview subjects compassionate questions that suggest her interest in what they have to say, quite unlike the gruff, mostly surly Tibby. As the subjects speak openly and feel comfortable with Bailey, Tibby is at first even more resentful, and eventually appreciative. That is, the lesson she learns has to do with generosity and love of life.
Like these other sections, Carmen’s is partly contrived and partly serious. As she reports in her journal, she’s spending the summer in North Carolina with her long-absent father Al (Bradley Whitford), who surprises her by announcing — as soon as she arrives — that she’s staying with him and his fiancée, the very Southern, alarmingly self-involved stepmother prospect Lydia (Nancy Travis), whose two blond teens are posed as complete opposites of Carmen (her mother is played by the terrific and underused Rachel Ticotin).
Though she stifles her antipathy at first — going so far as to be embarrassed and flustered at seeing Lydia’s Spanish-speaking maid and insist that she can wash her own sheets — Carmen’s evolution leads her to self-expression. This first takes the form of a broken window (and her dad’s complete inability to deal with her in any mature way — his immersion in ultra-whiteness is ignorant at best, cruel at worst). But eventually, she’s able to yell at him, over the phone, and it only seems right.
The movie is about learning to appreciate what’s in front of you as well as new experiences. One of the characters (who is restricted to a particularly soapy plot), notes her fear of “time” passing: “I’m afraid of time,” she says, “not having enough of it. I’m afraid of what I’ll miss.” But their most important lesson has to do with their mutual support and affection, which lasts over time. Where too many movies treat a girl’s losing her virginity as a singularly traumatic or excessively romantic event, this one shows it as a difficult event from which she learns, recovers, and moves on. If its resolutions are at times too neat, the movie can also be refreshing, allowing the girls to be confused, perceptive, foolish, mad, and generous. Just like girls can be.