Mona Lisa Smile

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Mona Lisa Smile : Starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, and Julia Stiles

Jun 17, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, themes and story

Cons:male actors were miscast

The Bottom Line: The strong female cast led by Roberts, Dunst, and Stiles helps bring a great story to the big screen.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

In the newest twist on the movie Dead Poets Society , Mona Lisa Smile is about a new teacher entering into a new school in 1953. Just as with Dead Poets, we have a conservative school, with a not-so-conservative teacher moving in to show these students how to think for themselves. The subtle differences this time around are that instead of Robin Williams teaching Poetry, we have Julia Roberts teaching Art 100. Just as with Dead Poets, we have a story that revolves around a teacher, and the new students that she is taking on. And, again, just like with Dead Poets, there is a set wall of resistance to her new teaching methods.


Julia Roberts plays the lead role of Katherine Ann Watson. Katherine is a graduate of UCLA, who has come to this new school in hopes of teaching the future leaders of tomorrow. Her new school is "Wellesley", and she soon finds out that the school is strict in every fashion of the word. It is a very conservative place, that prides itself on putting girls into their traditional societal roles. Translation being, that they are teaching these girls how to become good wives for when they are out of school and married. Rather than being a place where the girls can learn, and take their skills on to the real world, they are taught things such as crossing their legs, how to sit and stand as a lady would, and how to host a dinner party for the bosses wife. None of which would be tasks or classes, that women would want to go through today in the age of free-thinking individuals. It is hard for me to even fathom going to school simply to learn how to be a better wife.


Throughout the film, it becomes obvious that the main intent of becoming "cultured" at the school, is that someone will ask a girl to marry them even before they get out of Wellesley. It has become a common practice, that if someone becomes married, or engaged, that they just take time off from school to get their married lives started, and come back when they are ready. In stark contrast to accepted schooling today, getting married suddenly becomes more important than getting your degree at Wellesley. Enter Katherine Ann Watson, with the movie tagline that "in a world that told them how to think, she showed them how to live." She came to the college hoping to shape the lives of girls going into the real world, and instead she came head-first into a wall of resistance against abstract thinking. In a school that went by the book, it was unheard of to deviate from the required text in the class. It was even more unheard of, to bring up ideas that were in contrast to what the girls had grown up learning.


From the first day of class, it becomes clear that Katherine is going to have a different experience than she had anticipated. While showing slides of famous pieces of art in the first class, she becomes aware that everyone in the room is more intelligent than she had expected. They seem to know every single piece of art that she is showing in her slide show. Each student takes a turn explaining to her the title of the piece of art, and when it became infamous. She quickly deduces that some of the students must have read ahead in the class, and posses the question, "How many people have read the entire text?" Every student in the classroom raises her hand, and it hits her, that these students have more to offer than meets the eye. However, she is taken aback by what has just happened, and indeed, on the first day, the students have shown her up by professing their own intelligence's. From that day on, she realizes that she needs to take a new approach to teaching these young girls just how to appreciate art.


In the school, there are 4 main girls that have sub-plot stories other than that of Julia Roberts. First we have Betty Warren played by Kirsten Dunst, who is engaged to be married, and has been brought up to understand that her place in society is to be the best wife that she can be, and that anything other than that is unimportant. Faced with a teacher who wants to "change" what she has learned, she becomes an unruly student, who writes demeaning articles for the school newspaper. Dunst does a great job in this role, that is a long way from her "good-girl" roles in other movies such as Spiderman and Bring it On. It is quite interesting to see her in a role like this, and it brings a lot more depth to the movie. Her best friend is Joan Brandwyn, who is played by Julia Stiles. She too is of the understanding that she is there to serve the man who chooses her, and has always sacrificed what she could have, in order to make those around her happier. She has a potential that Katherine can see, and a sub-plot of the movie soon becomes whether she will realize that potential, or settle for the life of a housewife.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, are the two other girls with large roles in the film. Those girls are Giselle Levy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Connie Baker, played by Ginnifer Goodwin. Giselle is a free-spirit much like Katherine, who has just needed someone to show her that the abstract thinking she has grown accustomed to is actually acceptable. She too has a lot of potential, but has been unable to see it, because she is constantly being put down for being different than the other girls around her. It is only when Katherine comes along that Giselle is able to be herself on a daily basis. Connie, on the other hand, has been afraid to have a public-face, because she is ashamed of the person that she is. She has believed the people around her who have told her that she will never find a man or be married, and her self-confidence has suffered as a result of that. Goodwin plays this role magnificently, and the innocence of the character goes a long way to providing the film with another great sub-plot.


All 4 girls are roommates at the college, and all 4 of them have different personalities. It was only when Katherine came along, that they saw it was all right to be themselves, and not fall into the mold that Wellesley had told them to take. This movie is a glimpse at what it was like to grow up as a girl in the early 1950's. In was still a time where women were told that their place was in the kitchen, and where society was accepting of the roles that were given to women. It was only because of people like Katherine Watson, that women were able to see that there was more to life than finding a husband, getting married, having kids, and taking care of the house for a man. Life has more to offer than that, and there really is no limit to what you can strive to achieve if you really want to do it. Being only 25 years old myself, seeing this glimpse into the past shows me the grim reality of what women were forced to go through for many years. When I think about things like that, or when I watch movies that depict what it used to be like, I cant even fathom why it would have been all right to force women into those roles.


Mona Lisa Smile is a great movie about the strength of the female-spirit, and that there are times when the rules must be thrown out the window. In this instance, the rules were to teach only what was accepted in the textbooks as art, even if there was no basis from which to claim something like that. The movie helps show that it always depends on who is looking or evaluating something that tells us just what to think. It also shows that everyone should make up their own minds about something, rather than be told exactly what to think. The film depicts students that have not even known that they longed for intellectual freedom, until the prospect is put right in front of them. Now, will the help of Katherine, maybe some of these girls will see that life has something to offer them. Because of the themes of the movie, and the underlying message, I highly recommend that you see this film. It did remind me too much of Dead Poets Society , with a female twist, but this film was able to flex its own muscle with a great cast of young female stars.



Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good Date Movie

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