Mona Lisa Smile follows a new teacher at Wellesley College as she tries to teacher her students a new way to look at life, art, and gender/social roles. Julia Roberts plays Professor Katherine Watson and the film follows her first year at the conservative all-female college in the 1950s.
The cast includes many a familiar face including Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, Ginnifer Goodwin, and you can even spot Krysten Ritter and Lily Rabe in the classroom a couple of times. The students are really the main stars of the film as they all have a particular story and you see them evolve and develop as characters. They’re all likeable, and even the most unlikeable one develops into a better character. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic as the rebellious, fiery student and Kirsten Dunst is annoying but equally interesting as her foil, the stuck-up rule-abiding student. Still, the best is Ginnifer Goodwin, who is so lovable despite her character being the down-on-love friend that is just trying to find someone to accept her.
The plot follows the students as they come to grips with their responsibilities as women in relation to their responsibilities as students. Wellesley only accepts the brightest women in the country, and so the students wrestle with the traditional narrative that their primary goal is to become a housewife while also studying in a prestigious university and considering personal careers. Katherine, an unmarried professor, tries to upend this narrative by showing them their academic and independent potential and the film shows how her controversial lessons affect the different students in her class in varying ways.
I would have to say the only downside to this movie is that it can lag at times. The problem with so many different narratives happening at one time is some are destined to just not be that interesting. Unfortunately the least interesting is the personal life of the main protagonist, Julia Robert’s character. She has a great onscreen presence, but her actual scenes are just boring, as her students (except Stiles maybe, she’s pretty bland too) usually upstage her.
Overall, it is a really good period piece and Julia Roberts is obviously charming as she always is. The film really shows the difficult position educated women were forced into as they balanced the desire for a professional career and the societal push to be married and devote their time to a husband and future children. It explores the taboo nature surrounding divorce, birth control, and unmarried or gay women that prevailed and persisted in the 1950s. In a time where society still likes to dictate what women’s roles and values ought to be, we always need a film that reminds us to always questions the so-called norms of our time and to always seek independence and to follow the dreams we formed ourselves.
Amy’s Recommendation: 8/10