Teenage girls get their "Waiting to Exhale" in "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," adapted from Ann Brashares' popular juvenile fiction. This sentimental-in-a-good-way chronicle of four 16-year-old best friends' eventful summer apart mixes satisfying dollops of fun, tears, travel, romance and lesson-learning in a handsome package.

Teenage girls get their “Waiting to Exhale” in “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” adapted from Ann Brashares’ popular juvenile fiction. This sentimental-in-a-good-way chronicle of four 16-year-old best friends’ eventful summer apart mixes satisfying dollops of fun, tears, travel, romance and lesson-learning in a handsome package whose two hours pass faster than many a grownup entertainment. If it can withstand the first onslaught of bigger seasonal competitors, repeat biz might keep Ken Kwapis’ (“Dunston Checks In,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) feature around long after school’s out for the summer.

Sticking fairly close to the 2001 novel, co-scenarists Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler preserve its strengths as a complex adolescent soap opera leavened by humor, warmth and empathy.

Prologue’s tone portends a more syrupy melodrama than thereafter delivered. Mercifully brief setup establishes protags as fated to be friends even before birth, a bond only strengthened by such formative challenges as losing parents to divorce or death.

Mildly punky Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is the cynical rebel. Lena (Alexis Bledel) is a wallflower aspiring artist. All-American blonde Bridget (Blake Lively), left alone with a distant father after her beloved mother’s demise, uses aggressive flirting and athleticism to dull the pain. Good-humored Carmen (America Ferrera), a budding writer and the pic’s narrator, has learned to roll with the punches since dad left.

This summer marks the first time the inseparable four will spend significant time apart. But before they scatter, the girls find a pair of magic blue jeans in a store — magic because they perfectly fit each differently sized heroine. Empowering the duds with 10 rules evoking good luck and good behavior, the quartet vow they’ll swap the pants long-distance until reunited.

Bulk of story then intercuts between the principles on their separate summer vacations. Lena visits grandparents on a Greek isle, where she meets dashing university student-cum-fisherman Kostas (Michael Rady). Unfortunately, their families have a long-running feud with each other.

Bridget finds her own slightly-older man in Eric (Mike Vogel), a dreamy young coach at the Baja soccer camp where she’s a show-offy star player. He’s initially taken aback by her shameless pursuit, then relents. This provides pic an (offscreen) “first time” that’s cause for regret (though not excess moralizing), as Bridget realizes sex won’t chase away her suppressed grief over maternal abandonment.

Carmen, despite mom’s (Rachel Ticotin) misgivings, traipses off to South Carolina, where she’ll stay with the father (Bradley Whitford) she’s seen too briefly and infrequently since their divorce. But upon arrival he springs several dismaying surprises: He lives with uber-perky Lydia (Nancy Travis) and her two kids, and he’s about to marry her. While superficial efforts are made to include Carmen, she becomes all too aware that this squeaky-clean new family views her as an intruder.

Nascent filmmaker Tibby is the only one still stuck at home in Bethesda, Md. (as portrayed by Vancouver). She resigns herself to working at the local jumbo-store (refreshingly not used for a marketing tie-in) while spending spare time on a video “suckumentary” indicting the supreme lameness of everything and everyone. But her nihilism is slowly eroded by 12-year-old Bailey (Jenna Post), a gregarious pest who appoints herself Tibby’s assistant while hiding a darker secret.

Latter plot thread lays siege to the tear ducts in the final reel. There’s also some heavyhandedness in the way that every time wee Bailey and, to an extent, grownup Kostas, opens their yaps, a life lesson plops out.

But in general, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” respects the intelligence of its audience (and lead characters), refusing to condescend or oversimplify. While there are wish-fulfillment aspects to some narrative turns, tale manages overall to uplift without suggesting the road from girlhood to womanhood is — or even should be — easy. Parents will appreciate positive messages more firmly couched in adolescent reality than those in producer Debra Martin Chase’s “Princess Diary” films.

Talented young lead thesps are spot-on, though Ferrera’s (“Real Women Have Curves,” “Lords of Dogtown”) vivacious naturalness makes her scenes especially winning. Adult characters are drawn in broader strokes, but well cast.

Gae Buckley’s production design, Lisa Jenson’s costumes and John Bailey’s widescreen lensing (Greece has never looked so well-scrubbed) make fine contribs in a package deftly turned in all departments. As one might expect, the soundtrack relies on shoehorned pop tunes to a sometimes intrusive degree, though it could have been worse.

Original scribe Brashares has already sequelized “Sisterhood” in print twice, leaving no lack of material for potential filmic follow-ups.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment presentation of a Di Novi Pictures/Debra Martin Chase production. Produced by Chase, Di Novi. Executive producers, Leslie Morgenstein, Kira Davis, Alison Greenspan. Co-producers, Christine Sacani, Steven P. Wegner, Melissa Wiechmann. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Screenplay, Delia Ephron, Elizabeth Chandler, based on the novel by Ann Brashares.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editor, Kathryn Himoff; music, Cliff Eidelman; music supervisor, Dawn Soler; production designer, Gae Buckley; art directors, Kelvin Humenny, Helen Jarvis; set decorator, Carol Lavallee; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; sound (Dolby Digital), Jason George; assistant directors, Walter Gasparovic, Fiona Winning; casting, Shani Ginsberg. Jakki Fink. Reviewed at Variety Club Screening Room, San Francisco, May 19, 2005. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Tibby - Amber Tamblyn Lena - Alexis Bledel Carmen - America Ferrera Bridget - Blake Lively Bailey - Jenna Boyd Al - Bradley Whitford Lydia - Nancy Travis Carmen's mother - Rachel Ticotin Eric - Mike Vogel Kostas - Michael Rady
With: Leonardo Nam, Maria Konstandarou, George Touliatos, Kyle Schmid, Eric Hubbard, Emily Tennant, Jacqueline Stewart, Sarah-Jane Redmond, Ernie Lively, Kendall Cross, Kristie Marsden, Patricia Mayan Salazar, Patricia Drake.

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