In the current popular culture, female friendships -- at any age -- are generally considered secondary to life's "important" relationships, the romantic bonds between men and women.
Nowhere is this depressing trend more evident than in Hollywood, where story lines putatively about women's friendships tend toward the saccharine ("Mona Lisa Smile"), the malicious ("Mean Girls") or the boy-crazy (take your pick).
Which is why it's such a pleasure (and a relief) to encounter movies such as "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2." Like the first "Pants" movie, it presents its heroines' relationships as complicated, challenging and particularly rewarding, and not simply as a vehicle for finding the perfect boyfriend.
The four stars of "Sisterhood" are back for this smart, confident second act, based on the novels of Ann Brashares. They're reprising their roles as best friends who share a remarkable pair of blue jeans, which, you'll remember, mysteriously transforms to fit each of them whenever she needs its powers most.
As the movie opens, we find the friends (Carmen, Bridget, Tibby and Lena) at the end of their first year in college; Carmen (America Ferrera, appealing as always), still the group's emotional center, is looking forward to a summer at home surrounded by her best friends, but the others have different plans. Tibby (the enormously talented Amber Tamblyn) is staying in New York to work on her screenplay, and Lena (Alexis Bledel, "Gilmore Girls") has signed up for summer classes at a design school. Meanwhile, Bridget ("Gossip Girl" Blake Lively) is off to Turkey on an archaeological dig.
Screenwriter Elizabeth Chandler, who also penned the first "Sisterhood" installment, wisely hews close to the formula that made the previous movie such a success, and director Sanaa Hamri ("Something New") keeps things moving at a good clip. This is an ensemble piece, but the young stars are each entrusted with a complete, largely individual story arc, a challenge they handle with various degrees of success: Tamblyn, whose Tibby is sarcastic and very funny, is the clear standout, imbuing her most brittle exchanges with humor and a tentative warmth. Ferrera, taking a break from the relentless cheeriness of "Ugly Betty," has become a mature, highly nuanced performer. Meanwhile, Lively has by far the most dramatic story line and seems a bit overwhelmed at times, but she turns in several very nice scenes with Blythe Danner, who plays her estranged grandmother. As for Bledel, I can't decide if she's an incredibly subtle actor or if she's capable of only two facial expressions (vague confusion and vague happiness).
And while there's an element of fantasy to much of the movie, serious issues, including teen pregnancy and mental illness, lurk beneath the cinematic sheen.
Like its predecessor, "Sisterhood 2" is based on two radical ideas: namely, that young women's stories are about more than the pursuit of men, and that happiness isn't something someone else gives you -- it's something you have to find for yourself.
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature material and sensuality. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In general release.