'Pants' is a snug fit for teen girls

'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' is a whimsical surprise.

My radar starts bleeping when I think a movie or novel is trying too hard to be impish and adorable, especially when the effort starts as early as the title. Throw in the word "sisterhood" and my radar goes nuts, thanks to "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," the 2001 romance that had me shuddering at the term "chick flick" for months.

Adding the word "pants" doesn't help either, so maybe my expectations for "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" were so low that I was bound to be pleasantly surprised. Be that as it may, this week's "Sisterhood" is one of the most pleasant surprises so far this season.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't one of those teen-pix that leap beyond the genre's usual limitations - like last year's "Mean Girls," and "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" of the year before, or the excellent "Election" of 1999.

But you don't have to leap beyond a genre to use its formulas well. That's what director Ken Kwapis has done, turning Ann Brashares's novel into a tidy (if overlong) treat.

The sisterhood consists of four 16-year-old girls who've been best friends forever and aren't pleased about parting for summer vacation. Bridget, the beautiful one, goes to soccer camp. Lena, the serious one, heads for Greece to stay with relatives. Carmen, the discontented one, visits her estranged father. Tibby, the rebellious one, grows close to a younger girl who may not have long to live.

What connects them is a pair of jeans they try on at a clothing store, where it fits each girl as if it were tailored just for her. Does it have some magic power? Just in case, the friends agree to share them by mail all summer long.

But maybe it's not magic, just growing self-esteem within personalities that are quickly maturing and will soon leave adolescence behind.

While none of the story's incidents is very original, the movie dodges boredom by switching frequently among its four intersecting tales. It's also gorgeously shot by John Bailey, one of Hollywood's best cinematographers.

You may not literally laugh or cry, as the ads promise. But you'll have a good time watching the dream-fulfilling denims make their comic-romantic rounds.

Rated PG for mild sensuality.

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