The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is my favorite kind of film.
"Sisterhood" will not win any Oscars despite a consistently believable and captivating ensemble cast.
"Sisterhood" will, most likely, not break any box-office records but will probably slip under the box-office radar until finding new life once it hits the video shelves.
Starting with its very title, "Sisterhood" is a joy to watch because its director Ken Kwapis has crafted a film that avoids making marketable choices, avoids easy answers and avoids dramatic histrionics in favor of a simple film about the lives of four teenage girls whose lives have been inter-twined since birth. Kwapis, whose directing credit includes such quirky, heartwarming fare as "Malcolm in the Middle," "Freaks and Geeks," and "Eerie, Indiana", instead chooses to trust his actresses to sell their character's highs and lows on face value. Instead of being force fed drama and comedy (NOTE: See any Lohan film), we are instead allowed to care about these characters and spend the course of the film learning the little things that make them tick. Sadly, it makes for a quieter film...a quieter film is harder to market and I fear that this film may not find the audience it so richly deserves.
As most teen girls could tell you, "Sisterhood" is based upon a novel that also captures the teenage years quite authentically. Having not read the novel, I am instead left to embrace the film's faithfulness to the ideals set forth in the book by Ann Brashares. Clearly, the novel has a following as the theater in which I saw this film was filled with primarily teenage girls joined mostly by a single parent. In adapting the book for film, Delia Ephron has combined a beautiful mix of honesty, teenage angst and good old fashioned developmental psychology.
The dialogue feels authentic, with a few minor exceptions...there were a couple times when I almost felt like Kwapis was going to buy into the histrionics but the moments were always short-lived and, in the hands of these capable actresses, the characters would give a look, make a gesture and/or do a suddenly small line that made everything gel together again.
That "gel" is ultimately what makes this movie my favorite kind of film...it's a movie about relationships in which the relationships are believable and rich. The chemistry among these four actresses is outstanding and through a wide range of emotions maintains believability.
I wish there was some magic formula that would make people realize they need to see films such as this one...yet, in some ways, I think that it is this type of film that people don't go to movies to see. In a world where "Revenge of the Sith" can open at over $100 million in box office receipts, it doesn't surprise me that a film about very real humanity hardly catches a glimpse upon its opening. This film is devoid of special effects...it is devoid of histrionics...it is largely devoid of sex (though it does deal with sexuality)...in other words, it chooses reality over fantasy...and, it seems, fantasy nearly always wins at the box-office, whether it is Star Wars or Tarantino or animation.
"Sisterhood" works largely due to the performances of its exemplary ensemble cast that is perfect assembled from the major parts all the way down to the extras.
The story centers around four girls who've grown up together, and despite numerous differences are truly a "sisterhood." As they've turned 16, they are preparing to spend their first Summer apart. During their last evening together, they venture into a vintage clothing store where they find the "perfect" pants...they are perfect because they fit each of them perfectly (no small task as they are different shapes, sizes). This alone could have been played for laughs, yet Kwapis treats it with great reverence and honors the importance of this night and these pants for the girls. What could have been played for laughs instead brought the first of several tears to my eyes as we watch these girls create a sacred ritual that has each of them possessing the pants for one week each during the Summer.
First, there's Amber Tamblyn (from TV's "Joan of Arcadia") as Tibby. Tibby is the independent spirit of the quartet of girls. She's an amateur filmmaker who is making a film about losers that seems oddly introspective. She writes about darkness, yet seems incredibly frightened of the light. She's the one of the quartet who is left in town during the Summer. Tibby finds a Summer job at "Wallman's" (a blatant and VERY FUNNY rip off of Wal-mart). It is there she meets Bailey, a 12-year-old girl, played beautifully by Jenna Boyd. The scenes between these two actresses as their friendship/sisterhood develops is one of great beauty and remarkable innocence. Tamblyn is a revelation here as she slowly opens up and lets Bailey in...to give away anymore would be a major plot spoiler but suffice it to say that there are times during the film when it's hard to tell who is mentoring who in this relationship...and, in fact, perhaps we learn most that we truly, deep down need each other.
Next, we have Alexis Bledel as Lena (Bledel is fresh off her performance as "Becky" in "Sin City" and already has quite the resume). Bledel marvelously captures a young teen who is blind to her own beauty and yet begins to discover it during her time visiting grandparents in Greece. Lena is also guarded, and seems out of touch with why as she's never had any dramatic experiences. Her scenes with her Greek grandparents and her unexpected "love" are scenes of simple tenderness.
America Ferrera portrays the Puerto Rican Carmen, a young teen who goes to visit her father in South Carolina for the Summer but becomes hit by the surprise that dad has moved into a "development" and has a fiancée with two children. Ferrera, gives a rich performance as a young teen struggling to understand why dad left and why she's not good enough for a relationship. It's a truly heartbreaking performance at times, yet Ferrera gives us a balance of strength and sensitivity that is reminiscent of her performance in "Real Women Have Curves." (SIDE NOTE: Ferrera appears in two movies opening this weekend. She's also appearing in "Lords of Dogtown", the skater flick that just opened).
Finally, newcomer Blake Lively portrays the "beautiful" one of the bunch, Bridget. She's beautiful, energetic and a gifted soccer player off to Mexico for the Summer who begins eyeing a male coach and becomes determined to get him. Bridget, for me, was the most difficult to bond with character...early indications are that she's a "tease" who uses her looks and body to far outshine anyone else...she's 17 and yet doesn't look or act it in most ways. Yet, as the film progresses Lively brings out the other sides of Bridget. Bridget is, in many ways, the most tragic of the girls as her mother died tragically (the movie strongly references suicide, but never actually says it) and her father is emotionally unavailable. We begin to see that Bridget is actually crying out to be loved, and the "sisterhood" is vital to her existence. Lively gives a look as she's riding home on the bus that is simply painful to see.
The entire supporting cast is wonderful including Bradford Dillman as Carmen's father, Nancy Travis as his fiancée, Leonardo Nam as Brian McBrian virtually all of the families and Tibby's co-workers.
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" often looks like a painting thanks to stellar cinematography, and the film is accompanied by a moving soundtrack.
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" is an ideal film for mother/daughter or father/daughter bonding. It is a film that will, I believe, evoke feelings of familiarity from young women and will genuinely entertain those who are open to a simple, wonderfully written story. "Sisterhood" is my favorite kind of film...it's a quiet gem deserving to be seen.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic