By Allison Benedikt
Tribune staff reporter
May 31, 2005
Yes, it's true: I liked a movie about magic pants.
The pants in question -- used jeans, actually -- complement the four leading ladies of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," Ken Kwapis' charming adaptation of Ann Brashares' hugely popular teen novel of the same name.
Between most Hollywood actresses, the ability to share denim is not exactly supernatural. (Abracadabra, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie will now swap size 0s!) But real women have curves, and Kwapis cast a few of them, most notably America Ferrera, who plays Carmen, the full-figured, precocious and emotionally intelligent daughter of divorced parents -- mom Latina, dad white ("The West Wing's" Bradley Whitford).
Carmen and her three best friends are splitting for the summer -- their first separation since meeting en-womb at their moms' prenatal aerobics class -- and they've promised to KIT via the jeans, which each girl will wear for a week and then ship to the next with a letter enclosed, handwritten no less.
Bridget (Blake Lively) -- tall, blond, hot, athletic bod -- is off to Mexican soccer camp; it's Greece for beautiful wallflower Lena (Alexis Bledel, for you "Gilmore Girls" fans), and the local dollar store for the midsize cynic of the group, Tibby (Amber Tamblyn, of the recently axed "Joan of Arcadia"), who will wallow in her abandoned state by making a documentary about the "banality of everyday life," which she calls her suckumentary.
The arc is pretty standard here: Girls go off to their respective summer experiences, come out of shells, find themselves, reunite. And Kwapis isn't fancy with structure either, following the jeans from one girl to the next, each story evolving parallel to the others.
But surprise, surprise: Standard is good. With the story-hopping timed to our, umm, challenged attention spans, it lets us get to know each girl without getting sick of her, and the fairly straightforward developments fall just the right side of sentimental. (Translation: You'll cry without feeling too ashamed.)
Ferrera is the star of this show, no doubt about that, and Carmen's story lends itself to the most passionate performance. Spending the summer with her oft-absent father and his picture-perfect, Southern belle fiancé, Carmen finds herself the outcast in dad's new model family, with hips and skin more akin to the maid than her kin. Near the end of the film, Ferrera gives one of the most poignant monologues about divorce I've ever heard in a movie, let alone a movie geared toward this much-ballyhooed teen demographic.
But it's actually the quieter, less obvious story line -- that of Bridget, the all-American beauty -- that delivers the sharpest sting, as she tries to fill the void left by her mother's suicide with the attention and affection of her coach. She teases and taunts with her flowing locks and barely there shorts, her sexuality blossomed far beyond her peers, but the quiet moments after getting the guy tell a different tale.
As we all know by now, most teen movies include the dying-on-the-inside popular girl, a recluse fit for "America's Next Top Model," the Guy, the makeover and the song (thank you, Olivia Newton-John). So it's tempting to give "Traveling Pants" an Oscar just for skirting around this time-tested formula. But there are a few too many moments of blatant heart-tugging for that.
Kwapis -- who has worked on such schmaltz-free endeavors as "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Freaks and Geeks" -- knows better, but at least he and writers Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler keep the corny bits to a minimum. And truly, a lot of teen life is clichéd. (Think prom, limo, virginity.)
More often then not, the relationships and performances are strong and moving, with an effect both breezy-fun and profound.
Speaking of profound: At the beginning of the film, before the girls part ways, they devise a rulebook for the magic pants -- never wash them, wear the pants for a week, then pass 'em on, etc. But it's rule No. 2 that really got to me, a life lesson for both young and old, with a power far greater than any one movie can hold:
You must never double-cuff. It's tacky.
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"
Directed by Ken Kwapis; screenplay by Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler; based on the book by Ann Brashares; photographed by John Bailey; edited by Kathryn Himoff; production designed by Gae Buckley; music by Cliff Eidelman; produced by Debra Martin Chase, Denise Di Novi, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1 hr 59 min. MPAA rating: PG (thematic elements, some sensuality and language).
Tibby - Amber Tamblyn
Carmen - America Ferrera
Bridget - Blake Lively
Lena - Alexis Bledel
Bailey - Jenna Boyd
Al - Bradley Whitford
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