Title: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenwriters: Delia Ephron
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera
Even if you took away the lamentable fact that it consists entirely of a jeans-clad teenage ass, the poster for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants would still be one of the tackiest in existence, due exclusively to the little “Levi’s” tag protruding prominently from the left side of the pocket. The seemingly harmless brand insignia communicates that though these “Wholesome” movies targeted at young girls have a loftier air than the typically more frenzied and action-packed flicks for young boys, the difference when it comes to the marketing and the overall commercial mindset is precisely nil. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the notion ought to take this obnoxiously pretentious genre down a peg.
Of course, reviewing the poster is probably somewhat less than useful. So: the movie. Adapted by none other than Delia Ephron (Nora’s sister and screenwriting partner) and Elizabeth Chandler from a reputedly popular novel by Ann Brasheres, it’s an undeniably well-intentioned little thing, hideous commercial instincts notwithstanding. It wants badly to teach valuable lessons — love your friends and family, be yourself, live life, follow your heart, speak out, make good choices, don’t wantonly seduce people, et al. To that end, it contrives several parallel storylines, each equipped and deployed to teach precisely one (1) of these lessons to an eager audience of tweens.
It should be said that there is nothing particularly wrong or offensive about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — except perhaps for the actor who plays the Greek boyfriend of one of the sixteen year-old main characters, who looks like he might be, oh, thirty-seven. It is merely that every fiber of my being wanted to resist the film’s construction, which is preachy and overwhelmingly false. Individual scenes work — though many are dire, as well — but the stories are too neatly built around their lessons, and the characters don’t exist except to push the messages forward.
I have come to realize that this is a common complaint. I feel strongly that moral formulations and “messages,” as it were, should emerge organically from the characters and not vice versa, “vice versa” implying characters and situations constructed around a moral formulation. The problem, if there is one, is that the distinction between the two is subjective, and the line usually impossible to pinpoint with any degree of certainty. In this case, though, it seems fairly obvious: Lena (Alexis Bledel), the quiet and shy one, will learn to be beautiful and less inhibited during her summer in Greece; Bridget (Blake Lively) will learn to be less arrogant and also that empty sex will leave her feeling empty during her summer at soccer camp; Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) will learn to value people and take nothing for granted during her boring summer working at “Wallman’s” and trying to film a documentary; Carmen (America Ferrera) learns to stand up for herself during her summer visiting with her inattentive, inconsiderate father. It’s all neat, and pat, and the movie is dead set on it; of course, Tibby must meet an adorably precocious little girl with leukemia (Jenna Boyd) in order to learn her respective lesson, and the object of Lena’s affections must be the arch nemesis of the rest of her family.
This is a fairly whiny and pedantic way to speak of a movie targeted at 13 year-old girls, but of course I am not a 13 year-old girl. That being said, I am confident that it is possible to make a film ostensibly targeted and such an audience and have it remain enjoyable for thoughtful film buffs of all ages. I am fond, for example, of Clare Kilner’s uncommonly intelligent How to Deal, which took a character-driven approach to the “Chicken Soup for the Adolescent Girl Soul” formula. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has nothing similar to offer. Its characters are defined exclusively by what they represent, and what they represent is usually preachy, obvious, and/or lifted directly from those bland, pseudo-inspirational posters that administrators like to hang on middle school walls.
Still, the film is sincere as these things go — perhaps “earnest” is a better word — and kind, and difficult to actively dislike. A couple of the performances are strong: Blake Lively, who proves wonderful at supreme arrogance, has lots of fun in her showboating soccer camp scenes, and America Ferrera effectively diffuses some of the more melodramatic aspects of her storyline with her candid, believable turn. And its gimmick (a pair of jeans that magically fit all four of the best friends and thus get passed around throughout the summer as a symbol of their friendship) is kind of sweet, even if it is the very epitome of the kind of contrivance I was complaining about. This isn’t a bad movie or an insulting one — except for that damn Levi’s tag on the poster — but it is awfully simple, and not particularly interesting for those of us out of its demographic.