One for the Girls

Traveling Pants is an ill fit for the screen, but teens and tweens will love it

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a flawed movie born of a flawed novel, but let this be clear: Girls will eat it up with a spoon. It features three young stars, indulges in rampant romantic fantasy, drips with teary-eyed sentimentality and pays a heapload of lip service to the long-since co-opted notion of girl power. All of which is to say: If you've got a member of the demographic in your life, bring on the Kleenex, because you're in for a super-size helping of manufactured catharsis.

To be fair, there is charm here, in the form of Amber Tamblyn. She plays Tibby, the pierced alternachick forced to spend her summer working at Wallman's (i.e., Wal-Mart) in an ugly red smock. Tamblyn is adorably put-upon, conveying intelligence -- and therefore impatience -- with edgy conviction. Faring less well is America Ferrera, the spitfire from Real Women Have Curves. Her presence (not, to be clear, her size) is too big and too real for Sisterhood, a teen movie (with all of the condescension that Hollywood believes that entails) playing at serious issues. And then there's Alexis Bledel, whose beautiful-but-inaccessible Lena is likable for a total of ten seconds, during which she cries about her inability to love and dives into the sea. Unfortunately, the moment is ruined with the appearance of Kostos (Michael Rady), the Greek cheeseball whose job is to crack Lena's shell. (Newcomer Blake Lively, the fourth girl in the sisterhood, does a decent enough job with what little she's given.)

Part of the trouble with Sisterhood stems from its failure to adapt the best-selling novel of the same title by Ann Brashares. The rest of the trouble comes from its success in doing so. The novel takes four best friends and spreads them around the globe for a summer, sending one to Greece (Lena), another to Baja (Bridget, played by Lively) and a third to South Carolina (Carmen, played by Ferrera). Binding the four girls is the titular pair of pants, jeans that magically fit all of them despite their differing sizes, which they send to each other throughout the summer. With four plots, even a two-hour film lacks the time to fully develop any single one. The result is a constant feeling of summary. The minor characters are mostly types, and unsatisfying ones at that. Eric, Bridget's "hot" soccer coach, is a Ken doll, with the attendant personality of hard plastic. Bailey, the twelve-year-old leukemia victim, has none of the barbed, geeky annoyance with which the book endows her. She's just a sweet little kid who's far too wise -- and too pathetic -- for the film's good. In her final scene, she lies in the hospital bed with bruised eyelids and instructs Tibby, in halting tones, to appreciate the little things in life. This is kiddie-cancer porn.

Rather than attempt to dramatize the meaning behind the action, the film simply lobs it at us. Whereas we might be shown what it looks like to open your heart to love for the first time, or to run away from your feelings and into romantic intrigue, the film prefers to tell us. Sisterhood's opening scenes are poisoned with explanatory voiceover directly from the book; its final half hour is fully occupied with a kind of self-therapy, in which every character psychologizes her way to a resolution. "I was doing it for all the wrong reasons," Bridget says to Eric, after having spent her summer in the (successful) attempt to seduce him. It's not just that no sixteen-year-old vixen would say that to a college boy; it's that no character, in movies or elsewhere, should explain to audiences what is their job to figure out.

Like the book, Sisterhood the film cannot stop selling itself. There is a hysteria to the proceedings, an urgent self-promotion, as though we would never believe from mere observation that four such different girls could be friends -- or could support each other, experience hardship and loss, and learn from it. And, like the book, the film reads as a litany of issues: Girl loses mother to suicide, girl's father leaves and remarries, girl meets young child dying of cancer, etc.

This is the problem when stories originate in theme and not in character. Yes, it's lovely to acknowledge the basic difficulties of being human, and kudos to Brashares for giving her heroines real challenges. But in film as in literature, character should come before plot, because that is how we experience the world -- as humans, with personalities. We are people first and last, and every drama involving a human is a human drama. Rather than sketching a few "types" of girls and saddling them with issues, Brashares should have given her heroines complex, interesting personalities and allowed the conflict to arise from that.

Remember To Kill a Mockingbird? Any attempt to peg Scout with a few signifiers falls flat, but in the course of a couple hundred pages, Harper Lee's novel shows us who she is. That's drama. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is something else.

 
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