Four friends, Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Lena (Alexis Biedel), Carmen (America Ferrara), and Bridget (Blake Lively) find a pair of jeans that mysteriously fits them all on the eve of their separation for the summer. They agree to share the pants, which bear witness to key points in their summer lives. Rated PG for thematic elements and some implied sexual activity.
There are some films, like Spiderman, that one approaches with an attitude and understanding that no matter what one says about them, people are going to go. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one I approach from the opposite end. It strikes me as the type of film that, no matter what I say about it, big chunks of the viewing public will remain indifferent to it. Perhaps, then, the biggest danger in a review is to fall into the trap of over-praising it in an attempt to break through the perceived resistance to the film and get even a few to go. It is the type of movie (genre? style? subject matter? what I mean by this, I am not yet quite sure) that I sense will not be taken quite seriously, even by those who like it; so I imagine my praise will be meet the same reaction (in some quarters) as my praise of Little House on the Prairie or The Karate Kid. How nice that you liked it, Ken, but, seriously, though, you can’t expect us to believe that it’s a good movie. So, why might those of you who are not teenaged females enjoy the film? Here are a couple of its pleasures:
The acting is terrific. Amber Tamblyn is very, very good. America Ferrara is, quite simply, fabulous. Ferrara gave a knockout performance in Real Women Have Curves and backs it up here. I will gladly go see her next three movies without knowing anything about them other than that she is in them. She’s that good. Blake Lively and Alexis Bledel, while not as good as Tamblyn or Ferrara (in parts that are, admittedly, not as meaty), are nevertheless competent. Bledel may have trouble creating a full enough character to distinguish herself from Rory Gilmore, but hers is the most flatly written character.
The supporting characters are treated respectfully, creating a landscape world where our affinity for the main characters is earned rather than merely expected. In most movies of this ilk (dramedy? melodrama?) the writers will take short cuts to bond you to the main characters, such as making the ancillary characters monsters, too exaggerated by half, or total idiots. I like that the film has respect for Ferrara’s father (the wonderful Bradley Whitford); he makes mistakes, but he’s not a monster. Even the step-mother is allowed moments of charity that show us that while she may not know what to do, she is trying; the film doesn’t just fall into the trap of always giving the supporting characters the worst possible reaction to try to get us to like the leads by default. The other girls at the soccer camp, the video game playing guy, the co-worker at Wal-Mart (oooops, I mean WALMANS) are all invested with qualities that allow us to consider their virtues and faults but never resorts to asking us to mock them or look on them with contempt (a la Payne’s Sideways).
Christian audiences might appreciate a subtle but existing pro-faith message. Then again, I had a few mixed feelings about it. The film deals with the implausibility of there actually being a pair of pants that would fit all four body types by investing a mystical hint or suggestion that there is something magical about them. Okay, we’re not quite into magical realism here, but there’s a whiff of a suggestion of something supernatural here. The young ladies’ faith in its magical qualities invites them to invest hope in the pants and the film suggests that the act of having faith is, itself, an empowering and good thing. That the film is a secular film means that the empowering quality of faith must ultimately be explained in psychological terms–it is not that there is anything good about the object of faith, faith itself is good because it helps the characters access and release the good that was latent in them all along. Certainly a more overtly religious film would investigate the question of how the strengthening aspects of faith are related to that which your faith is in, but I’m still happy enough for a movie that presents faith, even in an abstract way, as a positive thing.
So what are we left with? A film that admittedly feels like a soap opera but which, if I’m honest, I enjoyed watching as much as any film so far this year. A couple years ago, I was listening to sports radio and the announcer was chastizing Yankee manager Joe Torre for walking Barry Bonds. Fans paid money to be entertained, he argued, and that meant giving Bonds an opportunity to hit. My response to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants can be summed up by the fan who called in to defend Torre: “You know what I find entertaining to watch? Competence. People doing their jobs skillfully.”
[This review originally appeared at Viewpoint, a blog of the author’s in 2005.]