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Film Review: Mona Lisa Smile

Updated on December 17, 2016
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.


In 2003, Mike Newell released Mona Lisa Smile, which starred Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marcia Gay Harden, John Slattery, and Mairian Seldes. The film grossed $141.3 million at the box office.


UCLA grad student Katherine Watson accepts a position teaching art history at a women’s liberal arts college in 1953 Massachusetts. However, her style and feminism is unorthodox. While some students and colleagues to welcome her, her methods ruffle the feather of others, including the president and head of the alumnae association.


A well-made and thought provoking film, Mona Lisa Smile is also a very enjoyable film to watch. Driven mostly by its characters, what makes the film so interesting is the growth and development they go through a the film progresses. Take Katherine. She's a pretty interesting character, both as a teacher and as a feminist on the cusp of the Second Wave. She goes to teach at the school because she wants to be able to empower and influence the women there to be part of the next generation of leaders alongside the men. Her main goal is to get her students to see the world differently and have them understand that the university’s expectations of them isn’t all there is. Though her first lesson is practically commandeered by the girls, her next lesson shows what she really wants to do by kicking off a discussion about what art is and what constitutes good art. Her goals of making the students see the world differently and prepare them to be who she wants them to be initially falls on deaf ears as some of the students have no real ambition, leading her to complain that all she’s really doing is educating the wives of the next generation of leaders. It's a layer to the film that can really resonate with educators constantly trying to reach their pupils.

One of the students that initially brings Katherine much consternation is Betty, an insufferable, extremely opinionated ultraconservative. She doesn’t want to see the world differently, is content for going along with traditions that women should be content with being wives and mothers, and holds to a very rigid position of universal artistic standards. She also really doesn’t like Katherine; which shows itself at first when she can’t understand why the latter isn’t married and really comes to fruition when she writes an editorial that attacks Katherine for her feminism. The conflict between the two really comes to a head after Betty gets married She expects the school’s traditional methods of excusing married women from attendance and schoolwork to hold over in Kathrine’s class. But Katherine will have none of it and continually marks her down because her performance is wanting.

What's really great about this film is that both Kathrine and Betty go through massive character development. Katherine takes feminism so seriously that sometimes she’ll launch into a straw man feministic caricature. It goes so far as to berate Joan for choosing to be a wife and mother instead of going through with attending Yale; which seems to be a decision of choosing love and happiness over dreams. Through Joan, Katherine understands that what she wants and her visions for her students may not really be their ultimate choice. Katherine learns to realize that she may not agree with their choices, but that doesn’t mean she can’t respect them.

On the flip side, Betty comes to understand that following the traditional ways aren’t always the best choice. This realization comes as her marriage fails and she decides that a future of her own really is a good idea, leading her to take Katherine’s message to heart. The ending shows just how much Katherine has impacted her when she writes another editorial praising the woman she once attacked.

4 stars for Mona Lisa Smile

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Nominated for

Golden Globe Awards

  • Best Original Song - Motion Picture ("The Heart of Every Girl")

Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards

  • Best Song ("The Heart of Every Girl")

Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards

  • Best Use of Previously Published or Recorded Music

Satellite Awards

  • Best Original Song ("The Heart of Every Girl")

Teen Choice Awards

  • Choice Movie Actress - Drama/Action Adventure (Julia Stiles)
  • Choice Movie Sleazebag (Kirsten Dunst)


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