By Brandi M. Seals
Mona Lisa Smile is the story of Ms. Watson (Julia Roberts) and the year she spends teaching art appreciation at Wellesley during the 1953-1954 school year. The film was released in 2003 and stars Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, and Julia Stiles.
In 1953, Katherine Watson is a free spirit who graduated from UCLA. She accepts a teaching position at Wellesley College, an all female school. She is shocked that the students at Wellesley, the school that holds the smartest women in America, are not preparing for careers, but are rather in pursuit of a Mrs. Degree. For the most part they go to school until they get married and never do anything with their knowledge.
Katherine is definitely a feminist at heart and works hard to change the minds of her students who seem to think that being a housewife is the only thing in their future. Some of them immediately accept that they will be housewives. The notion is so ingrained in Betty (Kirsten Dunst) that she takes an immediate dislike to Professor Watson and does her best to scathe her in her week editorials in the paper. Betty is under the impression that women should claim their spot in the home and reject any notion of the contrary.
On the other side of the fence is Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She is extremely outspoken, embraces casual sex and even has a diaphragm. Most of the girls fall somewhere in between. As they get an education and learn to consider different points of view, they struggle with boyfriend problems.
Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) considers going on to law school at Yale much to the chagrin of Betty. She applies after Professor Watson gets her an application. Joan gets in, but then decides to elope. One of the most poignant moments in the movie happens when Professor Watson finds out about the sudden marriage. She is disappointed, but Joan points out that Professor Watson is not following her own lesson. She is always teaching her students to look beyond the surface, but when she sees a housewife, she only sees someone trapped in a life that has no merit.
It is in this moment that the movie comes full circle and manages to represent both feminist views - that women should have the write to work outside the home and do whatever they want, and that if what they want to be is a housewife, then that should be accepted by everyone as well.
The movie also wraps things up nicely when the women at both extremes (housewife Betty and free-loving Giselle) decide to be roommates. Despite Betty's upbringing, she decides that she is worth more than a cheating husband and files for divorce the same day she graduates. Since she is not welcomed at her parent's house, she and Giselle decide to become roommates.
Ms. Watson chooses to leave Wellesley after one year, because restrictions that would be placed upon her if she returned. As she is leaving campus for the last time, her students follow her taxi on their bikes. Clearly these women were affected by her presence and her beliefs and they wanted to say thank you.
I love this movie because it gives women a look into the past and see what life may have been like. While I am sure the overwhelming stodginess showcased in the movie was a bit overdone, I think it is still a fair look into the past. It will make any woman appreciate the choices she has now and what it took to get those choices.
I did, however, notice a few discrepancies in the film. In one scene Julia Robert's character calls Julia Stiles' character, Julia. It is when they are on the porch and Ms. Watson is congratulating Joan on getting married. Look for it when you watch this movie. It is shocking that the slip made it into the finished product.
Another slip up that may be easier to miss comes up when Ms. Watson hands Joan an application for Yale Law School. On the application the words "juris doctor" are misspelled as "jurus doctor."
Look for other slip ups as you watch. You will find dozens if you pay close attention.