For the hordes of teenage girls who wore out the pages of Ann Brashares's 2001 young-adult novel ''The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," I'll get the major change-ups out of the way: Tibby isn't petite and Lena's grandparents hate Kostas right out of the gate. Here's the biggest shocker, though: The movie version of ''Sisterhood" is otherwise sweet, wise, warm, and remarkably true to Brashares's characters and values. Men need not apply -- actually, teenage boys will probably gnaw their arms off to get away -- and the movie's much too mainstream to appeal to the art house crowd, but these are, by and large, good points. As female-bonding comfort food goes, ''Sisterhood" is that rare meal both adolescent girls and their mothers will be able to agree on.
The following plot synopsis is for those who have no idea what I'm talking about (the rest of you can drum your fingers in boredom and listen to Green Day sing ''Extraordinary Girl" again). It's the beginning of the summer, and four 16-year-old best friends in suburban Bethesda, Md., are parting company for the first time in their lives.
Beautiful, brittle Lena (Alexis Bledel of TV's ''Gilmore Girls") is going to stay with her grandparents on the Greek isle of Santorini. Bridget (newcomer Blake Lively) is a blond queen-bee jock headed for soccer camp in Mexico. Carmen (America Ferrera of ''Real Women Have Curves") is a budding writer insecure in body and mind; she's finally going to spend some quality time with her estranged father, Al (Bradley Whitford) in Charleston, S.C. Tibby (Amber Tamblyn of ''Joan of Arcadia"), the resident cynical punkette and the movie's closest approximation to an authentic teen rebel, is stuck working at the local chain megastore. She's also shooting a documentary about her summer that might as well be called ''Why I Hate Everything."
Oh, yes, the pants. Carmen has bought a pair of weathered thrift-shop blue jeans that mysteriously fit all four of the friends, and more discreetly radical than this borrowed bit of Latin American magical realism is the notion that girls (and women) come in all shapes and sizes, none of which are the Olsen twins.
So the pants, mailed from one girl to another every two weeks, become the link that connects them. There are additional rules -- no laundering, no double-cuffing, no letting anybody but you take them off. They could've added, ''No admitting the pants are a metaphor for life's unexpected growth experiences," but that would give the game away.
Under the functional, faceless direction of Hollywood vet Ken Kwapis, ''Sisterhood" splits into four narratives united by the girls' voice-over letters and the Federal Express delivery schedule. The quality of each plot tangent depends on the particular actress and predicament. For instance, timid Lena supposedly learns to loosen up and live a little when she meets a hunky Greek college student (Michael Rady), but Bledel is an actress of such porcelain precision that you don't buy the transformation. Anyway, that story line is pure Harlequin romance and a mere excuse to take in the Santorini sights -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Over in Mexico, ''reckless" Bridget is chasing down a handsome 20-something soccer coach, Eric, (Mike Vogel) with a determination just this side of legal stalking. She gets what she wants but learns it doesn't bring her what she needs, a useful point the movie might've made more clearly if it weren't hellbent on staying in PG territory. (Something happens to Bridget, but younger audiences will be awfully fuzzy as to what.)
The best parts of ''Sisterhood" don't involve boys. Tibby finds her jadedness put to the test when she picks up an unwanted filmmaking assistant in Bailey (Jenna Boyd), a 12-year-old whose slightly creepy air of wisdom is a sure sign she's lunch meat. This doomed-angel shtick goes back through Louisa May Alcott and beyond, but the target audience doesn't know that, and they'll happily snuffle even as the rest of us resist the hospital deathbed scenes with all the will we humanly possess. Besides, Tamblyn gets interestingly quiet as Tibby is faced with another person's demise; she shows you a girl whose soul has just been read the riot act.
Best of all is Ferrera as Carmen, plus-size and hesitant and bursting with hope and hurt. Arriving in Charleston, she learns her father is about to marry the WASPy Lydia (Nancy Travis), who comes complete with two even whiter teenage kids of her own. Suddenly, Carmen has more in common with the cleaning lady than with her father, a development ''Sisterhood" makes with surprising force. The character has to learn to get angry at the right person (i.e., not herself) and then forgive that person, but Ferrera makes you forget any self-esteem sermonizing. She lets Carmen navigate each wave as it comes, sometimes going under but always swimming a little better.
None of this is groundbreaking stuff -- cinematically and narratively, it's two steps up from an ''After School Special" -- but neither does it need to be. Teenagers tend to assume that anything happening to them marks the first time it has happened to anybody, and so with these four and the people watching them from the audience. But that also includes any older sisters, mothers, aunts (or brothers, father, uncles) who remember their own adolescence. The unspoken assurance at the heart of this movie is that the pants fit everyone and the stories are endless.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.