“What I love most about them is that they left so much of themselves behind.” As she admires the people who used to live where her Brown archeology class is now digging, Professor Nasrin Mehani (Shohreh Aghdashloo) offers a lesson. She does this repeatedly in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, where her primary function is, after all, to instruct Bridget (Blake Lively). Though their interactions are cursory and contrived, slipped in between shots of B’s tanned thighs (set off by stylish safari shorts and work boots), they also offer glimpses into a world beyond the one that forms the narrow focus of this franchise. And for that, you feel grateful.
This sense of limits is pervasive in the sequel. This despite the fact that B and her three best friends are sent to four very different, awfully scenic locales. According to the formula laid out in the first film (and the Ann Brashares book that inspired it), each girl is given an issue to work out, though they stay in nominal touch by sending the magic pants to one another, accompanied by notes expressing support or frustration. This summer, Carmen (America Ferrera) heads to Vermont with a theater group, Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is retaking an NYU screenwriting course (in her first attempt at a romantic comedy assignment, she admits, her characters died), and Lena (Alexis Bledel) takes a figure-drawing class at Rhode Island School of Design. B goes farthest from home: on a soccer scholarship at Brown, she continues to struggle with her mother’s suicide while digging in the Turkish desert.
Caught up in a screenplay that’s based on more than one of Brashares’ books, the girls endure an assortment of age-appropriate crises. While Carmen plans to spend her summer backstage, assisting her very blond classmate Julia (Rachel Nichols), she’s sort-of-accidentally cast in the production of A Winter’s Tale as Perdita, which means she’s on stage with the object of both girls’ crushes, the British-sounding Ian (Tom Wisdom). Carmen’s feeling distracted and rejected (her mother, played by the wonderful and again underused Rachel Ticotin, is pregnant with her new husband), which makes her stake in the romantic competition feel more acute. Luckily, all the kiddies are treated to regular diversions offered by their acting coach (Kyle MacLachlan), who is delightfully snooty, vaguely smarmy, and not at all concerned with their silly shenanigans.
Carmen’s focus on her own “stuff” makes her unable to notice that Tibby, always so independent and tough, is in some emotional distress. During her first week in the Village, she’s gone and slept with Brian (Leonardo Lam). When he emerges from the bathroom, post-act, with a devastatingly dopy look on his face (“I think we had a malfunction,” he stammers, “It broke”), she’s duly horrified (“What!? Those things last forever in landfills!”). They part ways, and she refuses to speak to him or even come out of her bedroom much while worrying about being pregnant. That she’s utterly unable to share this scare with anyone is not exactly surprising for the mostly alienated Tibby (“I suck at relationships, I should have been a guy”), but it is tedious — especially as it means she spends most of her precious few moments on screen looking worried and frightened and trying on wigs and vintage clothes. You start wishing she’d move out of this determinedly inert movie and into Ghost World with Enid.
Another pregnancy story shapes Lena’s summer. Though she imagines, as you’ll surely recall from the first film, that she’s in lifelong love with Kostos (Michael Rady), she discovers at summer’s start that he’s knocked up a Greek girl and so, married her. Not exactly bouncing back, Lena falls for the gorgeous model in her drawing class, Leo (Jessie Williams). As she seems a special sucker for romantic clichés, he provides the works: flowers, candles, rooftop dinners he prepares (not to mention whatever soft-lit sex they have off-screen, featuring his sculpted abs). The fact that he’s an artist who opines favorably on her pretty much terrible sketches puts Leo’s taste or motive in doubt, but it’s clear from jump that Sisterhood 2 is only using him as an object lesson for Lena. Thus his superficiality — like Kostos’ before and after him — never rises to the level of actual calamity, only minor disruption.
The same cannot be said of B’s relationship with Professor Mehani, though the film tries hard to make this look as nonsensical as any of the romances. B acts out more than once, annoying if not full-on childish, but the professor remains wise and imposing, a model of how girls might behave when they grow up. As Mehani describes one particular skeleton (“She stood five feet, died at age 35”), she can’t help but notice B’s gaggy expression, and so learns that oh yes, B’s mother died at that age (she doesn’t learn, though you see it in framing scenes, that B’s dad is not handling any of this well, apparently seated permanently at his dining room table paying bills and barely able to look at his daughter, let alone speak to her). Mehani offers sympathy and also perspective: “I, like you,” she says, “have lost family and my home… to a bloody war!”
Bridget doesn’t quite pick up on this added context, though she certainly wants to identify with the sense of loss and glom onto her teacher as a substitute mother. When that doesn’t work out (Mehani does, in fact, have her own husband and child, who come to visit her in Turkey, in a scene made too melodramatic by B’s reaction shot), B decides at last to be responsible for herself. She heads to Alabama, where she spends a few days with her grandmother, Greta (Blythe Danner).
Again, B struggles to make sense of an older woman’s wisdom, and again, you begin to have visions of another, more satisfying movie, one that would dispense with the very pretty but very unconvincing Bridget, and put Greta and Mehani in the same frame. Or, to extend the notion, a movie about sisterhood that puts any of its supposed protagonists in the same frame for more than fleeting minutes. For this becomes the sequel’s most irritating tic, that it is so fixed on representing the range of the girls’ experiences that they spend precious little time together.