Tibby, Lena, Carmen and Bridget are best friends. They have been forever. And they’ve never been apart. It's a set-up that’s either a tad tired or tried-and-true, depending on your perspective. But it’s the honest-to-goodness beginning of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, so that’s the only way I can write it.
According to Carmen, the four disparate teenagers stick together because they seem to make “one complete person,” each reflecting a personality trait. Tibby is morose, moody and mad at the world. Lena’s quiet and shy. Bridget’s flirty, brassy and bold. Carmen? She’s something of an everygirl, sensitive, passionate and loyal. She can also be quite sassy when she feels like it.
Summertime is upon these thick-as-thieves pals as the story begins and each, for the first time ever, has plans that don’t include the others. Lena is about to board a plane to Greece to visit her relatives. Bridget has soccer camp (in Mexico) in her sights. Carmen wants to see her estranged dad who’s living in South Carolina. And all that adventure in the air makes Tibby all the more grumpy about having to work stocking shelves at Wallman's and take care of her kid sister.
Before they separate, the girls must go shopping! And at a thrift store they happen upon a certain pair of jeans that, when they try them on, fit each one of them perfectly. Tall, short, thin, thick, it doesn’t seem to matter to this special pair of jeans. Recognizing that there’s magic in the air, the chums promise to share the pair throughout the summer, mailing them around the world so no one is left out.
The rest of the film follows the journey of the jeans as Lena falls in love with a “gorgeous” Greek fisherman, Bridget falls in lust with a hunky soccer coach, Tibby is “rescued” from herself by an initially annoying neighbor girl named Bailey, and Carmen tries to make peace with her dad.
The jeans seem to set into motion events that teach valuable life lessons to each of the girls. Bridget learns that casual sex doesn’t bring fulfillment. (More on that in “Sexual Content.”) Tibby, who sets out to prove how “lame” everyone around her is, discovers how unique and special people can be. Lena opens her heart to love and romance. Carmen finally confronts her dad with her real emotions, and come to grips with the bad choices that he made and how those choices affect her.
Also, Bridget grapples with her mom’s suicide, finally crying over her loss and realizing that grieving for her mom doesn’t make her just like her mom. Confronted with possibly having to make a choice between her new love and her extended family, Lena respectfully goes to her grandfather and pleads her case, hoping against hope that she won’t have to alienate either party. She seems to be remembering the words of her grandmother, who told her, “Family is the most precious gift we are given, the most sacred. When you turn your back on them, that is when you truly have nothing.”
Tibby finally admits that she’s often wrong about people, after which Bailey says something exceedingly wise for a 12-year-old: “But at least you realize it now!” Lashing out at her dad for leaving her and her mom, Carmen communicates how much it hurts that he now has a new family. “I feel like an outsider,” she sobs, “that I don’t belong to you.”
There’s one overarching message that accompanies all of this, that each of us needs to find our place in the world, value every minute we have because time is fleeting, and treat those around us with love, compassion and understanding. Unconditional love gets a solid plug when Tibby tells Carmen that sometimes it’s “easier to be mad at the people that you trust because you know they’ll love you no matter what.” She isn’t excusing unrestrained anger; she’s just reinforcing how awesome it is to have somebody in your life that you know won’t run out on you.
Narrating the story, Carmen assigns a supernatural power of sorts to the pants, crediting “fate” for their presence and telling us that it will always be a mystery where “they came from” and why “they chose” the girls. “Perhaps that was part of their miracle,” she continues, “they sensed in that moment how much we needed them, how much we needed a little bit of faith to hold on to.” Director Ken Kwapis put it this way: “I’ve adopted a slightly agnostic point of view regarding the potential power of these pants. I feel this story is like The Wizard of Oz in that the strength and capability of each character is inside of them all the time. The pants are just the agent that brings this out.”
The girls refer to the building in which their moms met as “sacred,” and Carmen murmurs a quick prayer when they go there. (She’s playfully rebuffed, with the other girls telling her not to make such a big deal of it, and that it “isn’t a church.”) Carmen’s dad says grace before a meal. Later, Carmen remarks to her mom that it isn’t fair that he does such things now that he’s with a new family when he wouldn’t even go to church when he was with them.
Looking at the stars, Bailey states that every time she see them she “knows there has to be something more.”
When the girls try on the jeans, two of them strip down to their underwear in front of the camera. A man on the beach in Greece rubs lotion on a woman’s bare back. Lena dons a boy’s T-shirt (and nothing else) after her clothes get wet. In another scene she disrobes and dives into the ocean wearing only underwear. Halfway around the world, Bridget and some of the other girls on her soccer team practice in sports bras and short shorts. Bridget wears a button-down shirt tied around her middle exposing her bikini top. Several characters show cleavage. Lena’s boyfriend poses shirtless for her to sketch. Also, Carmen’s dad lives with his fiancée.
One of the rules that the girls make up regarding the jeans is that “removal of the pants must be done by the wearer.” That doesn’t stop Bridget from spending every waking moment hitting on a college-age coach at her soccer camp. She wiggles her body for him. She pours water over her head. She grabs his hands. She dances seductively for him and with him. She kisses him. And then, finally, she sleeps with him (offscreen). “I’m obsessed,” she says. “And as we all know, obsessed girls can’t be held responsible for their actions.”
After consummating her obsession, though, she’s blown away by the fact that she doesn’t feel the way she thought she would. “How can something that is supposed to make you feel complete make you feel so empty?” she whispers. (That���s a very positive lesson for anyone contemplating sex outside of marriage, but the script doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of a camp counselor/coach having sex with a 17-year-old camper. The issue is resolved far too easily and neatly to give the film a pass on this subject just because it deals with Bridget’s broken heart.)
Furious with her father and his new family, Carmen throws a rock, breaking a window. As a young girl, Bridget “attacks” a group of teasing boys, hitting them with rolled up paper. Carmen’s soon-to-be half-brother gets whacked in the head (hard) with a tennis ball. While not really “violent,” it’s worth noting an intense scene that shows Lena almost drowning when her jeans catch on something underwater.
Crude or Profane Language
“A--“ is said three times; “h---“ a couple of times. God’s name is interjected a half-dozen times or so.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Employees at Tibby’s store take lots of smoke breaks. A Mexican cantina gives soccer camp coaches occasion to throw back a few.
Other Negative Elements
Parents are either obstacles to happiness or little more than statues in the background. Tibby calls her store manager “rat-face.” Lena’s grandfather spits on her boyfriend.
Steel Magnolias. The Joy Luck Club. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. And now The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Call ‘em chick flicks. Call ‘em melodramas. Call ‘em tearjerkers. Call ‘em whatever you want, they all do approximately the same thing. They make moviegoers, most of them female, weepy. Referring to the Ann Brashares book the film is based on, producer Debra Martin Chase said, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a full emotional meal. It’s about the power and beauty of friendship and it runs the gamut from intense joy to raw emotion. You find yourself completely identifying with and getting caught up in the journey of these characters.”
So, is it the pants that make a saline-inducing series of events happen for Lena, Bridget, Carmen and Tibby? Of course not. The only magic they contain is Lycra. The girls have had what it takes to make it inside of themselves all along. “Truth is, Carmen has the courage inside to confront her father,” Ken Kwapis elaborates, “Lena has the ability to come out of her shell, Bridget comes to realize that pursuing [her soccer coach] has more to do with emptiness than love and Tibby discovers how much her anger has been keeping her from experiencing life. Their problems are solved by themselves.”
That’s a good thing ... and a bad thing. Self-reliance, personal growth and the warmth of friendship are great, but it’s less than inspiring when the movie’s conclusion does little more than offer a half-hearted monologue about how life isn’t perfect, and the best we can do is “string together all the little [good] things,” making those moments “count for more than the bad stuff.” The tweenage sage Bailey waxes eloquent, telling Tibby, “Maybe we just get through it and that’s all we can ask for.” It's a sentiment as stock as a yearbook greeting hastily scribbled on the last day of school: “You rock! Never change. Friends forever.” It’s sweet and sappy, but it just doesn’t mean very much.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Amber Tamblyn as Tibby; Alexis Bledel as Lena; America Ferrera as Carmen; Blake Lively as Bridget; Jenna Boyd as Bailey
Ken Kwapis (Dunston Checks In, The Beautician and the Beast)
Steven Isaac Steven Isaac