Sunday, January 11, 2004

Mona Lisa Smile 

I saw Mona Lisa Smile when it first opened, and have been putting off writing up my comments. I was having difficulty wording my thoughts so as not to reveal too much about the story. But I got a little prompting from jeanneatsundance, so here goes.

I really liked this movie. It was an enjoyable couple of hours which gave me a lot to ponder, and which was interesting in that it didn't take the predictable path in most of the storylines. I recommend it to everyone who likes chick flicks, and especially to anyone who attended a women's college (as I did). I'd definitely see it again.

Rather than being the story of a larger than life heroic teacher/professor who sweeps in and changes everyone's lives (think Dead Poet's Society), Mona Lisa Smile tells the story of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), an art history professor from Oakland, CA who finds herself teaching at Wellesley College. Rather than being larger than life, Katherine is simply determined that life can be larger than what is expected in 1950's mainstream America. She meets great resistance from the administration, the alumnae and most shocking to Katherine, the students.

The four students who feature in the story are played by Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhall and Ginnifer Goodwin. At first they seem like rather thinly written stock characters, but as the story progresses they each reveal that there's more there than you would have thought at first. You'll have mixed emotions about each one of them, but they pull you along for a great ride.

What particularly endears me to this film is that the characters have profound, but in some cases quietly understated, influences on each other. It's about working through the conflicts everyone faces between the desire to be true to themselves and their fear of the consequences if they do. Is self-determation worth the possible loss of social status, employment and comfort of fitting in? Are your personal goals of less value if they actually do mesh with mainstream expectations, or are you selling out without admitting it? These were questions my classmates and I were still wrestling with in the mid-80's.

There's one acknowledged lesbian character, who serves two purposes: provide Katherine with amusing but cynical insights into Wellesley politics, and demonstrate what can result when you live by sticking to your principle, consequences be damned. Jaded lesbian as cautionary tale...

I've heard and read disparaging remarks on the "You can bake your cake and eat it too!" line, as a weak embodiment of the "you can have it all" mindset. I found this line to be more an expression of Katherine's desperation to find a way for one of her students to achieve her academic and professional potential while still pursuing the expected paths. The scene marked for me the beginning of Katherine's own growth in realizing that everyone does have to take their own path, even if that path doesn't venture as far from Main Street as Katherine herself would prefer.

Reality Check: The Girl loved this one at first, but as time has passed she has modified her opinion to it was okay.

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Posted by Beth Henderson at 1:09 PM