Based on the novel "Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood" by Ann Brashares, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" follows the very same formula as its gently affecting 2005 predecessor
, but is perhaps slightly blander. In a way, this is understandable and not really a criticism. The first film worked a wedding, two funerals, and a fatal disease into its coming-of-age patchwork. To top that there would need to be an alien invasion, and director Sanaa Hamri (2006's "Something New
") and screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler (2003's "What a Girl Wants
") are smart enough to recognize that a planet takeover wouldn't quite fit into what, in essence, is a younger, tamer version of "Sex and the City."
Three years after their inaugural summer spent passing around a magical pair of jeans that mysteriously fit them all and brought good luck to the wearer, best friends Carmen (America Ferrera), Lena (Alexis Bledel), Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) and Bridget (Blake Lively) return home from college for vacation. No sooner have they reunited, however, that they once again are pulled in different directions. Carmen, who was looking forward to a leisurely few months with her gals, catches wind of their varied plans and opts to go with new actress pal Julia (Rachel Nichols) to a performing arts camp in Vermont. It is here that she plans to work behind the scenes, but star actor Ian (Tom Wisdom) instead coaxes her into auditioning for the lead role in their Shakespeare production of "A Winter's Tale." Much to Carmen's equal surprise and dismay, she nabs the part. Tibby, continuing her film studies in NYC, returns to Manhattan and shuts down her relationship with sweet-natured boyfriend Brian McBrian (Leonardo Nam) following a pregnancy scare. Bridget heads to Turkey for an archaeology program, but has a lot on her mind, namely an estranged grandmother (Blythe Danner) living in Alabama who may hold the answers to her mother's untimely death years before. And as for Lena, she is the one to stay behind this time. Still nursing the wounds brought about by her discovery that Grecian paramour Kostas (Michael Rady) is now married, Lena rebounds with her art class' down-to-earth nude model Leo (Jesse Williams).
For a modestly-budgeted film aimed at the female demographic, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" has a keen visual eye. One shot seamlessly morphs between seasons without a detectable cut, and the Greece-set climax looks vastly more attractive, colorful and expansive than the recent "Mamma Mia!
" Director Sanaa Hamri and her cinematographer, Jim Denault (2007's "Freedom Writers
"), have made sure to use their finances wisely, understanding that a story rooted in realism can still be aesthetically appealing and creative. The four respective subplots involve fairly basic material that the viewer has seen many times before, and the results of switching back and forth between them gives the film an episodic aura. Still, just as she made sure to do in the thoughtful romantic comedy, "Something New
," Hamri insists that her characters be free-thinking, complicated and intelligent. Their actions, bypassing what would be expected in the typical dumbed-down girl-empowerment studio flick, are that of authentic young women in their early twenties, forging a sometimes uncertain path in their love lives and for their futures.
If the stories vying for screen time are not always equal in quality and involvement, they are divvied up just right so that none of the characters take precedence over the others. The weakest of the lot is Lena's, as she allows herself to be romanced by Leo and then gets more confused when Kostas reenters the picture. This situation feels exceedingly familiarthat is, until it doesn't, and Hamri avoids a mushy love triangle for more natural, honest and low-key developments. Tibby's section is unevenher film classes are forgotten about so that more time can be afforded to her troubles getting close to Brian after they sleep togetherbut the issues she is going through, themselves harkening back to events in the first film
, are valid and effectively wrought. Carmen's travails at the arts camp are light on plot, but her growth from insecurity to strength is deeply felt. Her potential love interest, Ian, is kept as a summer crush, and the fact that it doesn't become more than that is appreciated. For Bridget, some uncertain moments early on in Turkey give way to a nice bond between herself and Professor Nasrin Mehani (Shohreh Aghdashloo) over the losses they've suffered in their lives. This segment really finds its footing later on when Bridget reconnects with her grandmother, who, in turn, gives her an invaluable gift that will help to mend her broken ties with her father (Ernie Lively).
One of the joys of the movie is that the characters are allowed to actually talk to each other and hold conversations, expressing values, points and ideas in a clear, literate manner. Where you would expect to find a big argument, you instead are given poignant snapshots of body language, facial expressions and thematic inferences that do all the talking. When Tibby visits Carmen at camp and the atmosphere becomes hostile and then hurtful, it stings with a rawness that requires no one to noticeably raise their voice beyond an extra decibel or two. Likewise, Lena's relationship with Leo concludes in a dashing fashion, not with a misunderstanding or a fight, but with a simple question breached: "Do you think there is just one person in the world for each of us?" Leo's answer is surprising, and so is Lena's levelheaded reaction.
The irresistible encore performances from leads Alexis Bledel (2005's "Sin City
"), America Ferrera (2005's "Lords of Dogtown
"), Blake Lively (2006's "Accepted
") and Amber Tamblyn (2006's "The Grudge 2
") are an immeasurable attribute. Their charisma and intuition, mixed with the separate, likable personalities of their characters, are always on-target, milking the smallest moments for maximum effect and buoying the not always spectacular material to a place where you believe what they are going through. Whether together or apart, Bledel, Ferrera, Lively and Tamblyn command attention without seeming to try. Elder supporting turns range from the wasted Kyle MacLachlan as demanding theater director Peter, to the undernourished Shohreh Aghdashloo (2006's "The Nativity Story
") as understanding professor Nasrin Mehani, to the warm and inviting Blythe Danner (2006's "The Last Kiss
") as Bridget's grandmother. In the actress' peer group, Rachel Nichols (2007's "P2
") is outstanding as Carmen's outwardly friendly, inwardly deceiving classmate Julia. This character could have easily been written as a stuck-up caricature, but she is much more complex than that. Nichols steals her scenes, her sunshiny smile masking a sad vulnerability.
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" is a solid if not wholly necessary sequel, but Carmen, Tibby, Lena and Bridget are so pleasant to spend a couple hours with that it hardly matters. The third act, which finds the fab four together in Greece searching for the title pants when Lena's younger sister (Lucy Hale) loses them, is decidedly contrived, but the wrap-up to this conflict is just about perfect in the way that it speaks about friendship and growing up without going for the obvious. "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" never talks down to its audience, and that alone is worth more than most female-bonding pictures of this ilk.