Worthy of more than just a smile

Dec. 24, 2003, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 17 years ago

Outstanding acting makes Mona Lisa Smile impressive

Everyone needs Julia Roberts in their life. She's smart, uninhibited and will encourage you to fulfill your deepest potential. Her roles fit this description, anyway. In truth, she plays them so skillfully that the line between illusion and reality is sometimes blurred. At least we know her smile's real.

Once again Roberts has proved a phenomenal actress, this time in Mona Lisa Smile, the tale of an innovative teacher who arrives at the prestigious but conservative Wellesley College for women in the early 1950s. Joining Roberts is an all-star cast including Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles and the marvelous but lesser-known Maggie Gyllenhaal. While the plot is nothing new—liberal teacher arrives in a conformist environment and meaningfully touches the lives of students—the execution of the story makes this movie worth seeing. Superb acting, a commendable script and creativity push Mona Lisa Smile past the trappings of being just one more life-changing teacher flick in the style of Dead Poet's Society.

Katherine Watson (Roberts) is an art teacher who hails from Oakland, California, and arrives at Wellesley with the initial intent of teaching by the syllabus. After her first day of class, she realizes that the students have read and practically memorized the text in preparation for a semester of reciting pre-determined opinions on what was considered the world's greatest art. Watson realizes that the only way to gain her students' attention and respect is to force them to think for themselves. As she says when introducing the scornful group to abstract art, "You're not required to write a paper on it; you're not even require to like it. But you are required to consider it."

As with all life-changing teacher stories, there are complaints from faculty and students about the professor's style of teaching and "subversive nature." Criticism of Watson remains relatively benign until one of her students, the spiteful yet influential Betty Warren (Dunst), writes an editorial in the Wellesley newspaper about how Watson's mode of teaching discourages women from achieving "the roles they were born to fill" as mothers and wives. Society in the early 1950s emphasized the female responsibilities as being homemakers; as Watson discovers, most of the Wellesley girls are attending school only to marry after earning their degrees, thus fulfilling their marital roles and squandering their education. In a quiet yet electrifying speech before her class, Watson addresses this phenomenon by displaying images of popular culture. "I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband's shirts for him?" she asks while showing an ad touting the new class of educated wives.

A prevalent theme in this film is that of image and the lengths that people will go in order to gain societal approval. Warren and her friends Joan Brandwyn (Stiles) and Giselle Levy (Gyllenhaal) portray this concept eloquently as they grapple with their roles as young women in America during the mid-twentieth century. Gyllenhaal in particular is excellent as the sparkly yet troubled Levy who compensates for her unhappiness by drinking and having affairs with teachers and married men.

Mona Lisa Smile is an engaging and entertaining movie that evokes both laughter and introspection as an exceptional cast breathes life into an impressive script. Though the story follows the formula of sappy-teacher movies such as Dead Poet's Society and Mr. Holland's Opus, Mona Lisa Smile feels fresh due to the wonderful performances of Roberts, Dunst, and Gyllenhaal.

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