Mona Lisa Smile surprised me. I didn’t go see it in the theaters because it sounded formulaic, and in many it ways it was. It’s a “teacher” movie that deals with the “real” lives of young society women – fifty years ago. At first it doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the middle time of the coming of age of feminism in this country. At first it does not seem to compare and contrast with the nuveau classic “Dead Poets Society”, but it actually does.
Listen and watch as Katherine (Julia Roberts) gets the girls to think for themselves using art as a “place” for them to exercise their maturing moral imaginations. Robin Williams did the same in Dead Poets Society with literature. He gets kicked out of the school because his teaching is linked to a student who commits suicide. Katherine Watson voluntarily leaves the school because she will not accept censorship. Further differences between the two is that Mona Lisa Smile deals with sexuality and this makes some viewers and critics uncomfortable – it seems to negate traditional values about home, hearth, and motherhood. But does it really espouse a perspective or instead present a story about the times that did question these values?
Katherine tries to get Betty to think for herself, but she is too focused on a society marriage and privilege- those superficial values that are part of her decisions with consequences that come back to haunt her. Katherine never judges. Joan, on the other hand, seems open enough to listen to Katherine who lays all the opportunities out and even pushes, but with all the facts and opportunities in front of her, Joan adamantly chooses marriage and motherhood.
Katherine accepts this… She seems like a puppet of the filmmaker, true. That’s why it’s not a great movie. She needs to think more for herself in the role…
My favorite part is the speech about critical autonomy regarding art, and by extension the social mores the girls accept without question. I think this is the basic message the film proposes. Some viewers may want Katherine to take a stand about sexual issues; it might have been more interesting if she had (the only thing she does is refuse to sleep with her boyfriend because it is socially unacceptable to her proper hausfrau – played to perfection by Marcia Gay Harden.) The superficial values the young women espouse are unacceptable even by today’s traditional standards, however these might be defined; Katherine’s values are to get them to think; she more or less ignores the sexual issues being raised around her. Sure, she says women can have it all – but how many women really believe this? I don’t think we really can unless we work very very hard and make great sacrifices – we wind up giving up everything to have it all.
Mona Lisa Smiles is pretty inocuous. It’s a history peice because it’s 50 years too late and bland to influence anyone – except about critical thinking. I am glad she goes off to Europe to study and stay poor. The option the school gives her to have her every move and word scrutinized is unacceptable – it is just another form of slavery with no creative freedom. What was life like in the 50’s? It wasn’t Leave it to Beaver…. or Father Knows Best. It may not have been Mona Lisa Smiles, either. All movies are constructed reality. It’s the ideas that may or may not be interesting.
Not a great movie, but not that bad either. The male teacher is a jerk… the school nurse is a lesbian who gets fired for giving out illegal birth control pills (this is the 1950’s). So the plot is structured to push all the buttons – but this doesn’t work very well and it isn’t the point. Smart viewers will recognize the flat approach to the formula and appreciate the advancement of critical engagement with the culture of the era… this is valid for all time.
Dead Poets Society told the men’s story; Mona Lisa Smiles tells the women’s. Is there anything in between these stories of white, rich kids who were being trained to be the leaders of … today? Are they the standard for universal human experience? Or is it their teachers?
The film probably isn’t even worth this much space… but it was watchable and thinkable.