Mona Lisa Smile 

(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars

(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars
Today, a woman can do it all — it’s almost expected. A bright, well-educated woman who chooses to exclusively stay home and raise a family is often subjected to raised eyebrows. Many young women, definitely those of us under 30, can’t imagine a world where our gender dictates the course of our entire lives — and that life would be the home. This is Mona Lisa Smile. Set during the school year 1953-’54, Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a progressive-thinking woman from the West Coast, takes a position as an art professor at an elite all-girls college on the East Coast — Wellesley. There, she is confronted with her greatest challenge: dead-locked ideas about women and their place, from the faculty and even her students. As she states in the film, “I thought I was headed for a place that would turn out tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives.” Of her students, a trio plays a particularly large part: Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), the pretty one; Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), the smart one; and Giselle Levy (Gyllenhaal), the slut. Betty is set against Katherine’s subtle attacks against marriage. Through cruel exposés in the school paper and snarky comments, Betty makes Katherine’s — and anyone else she finds out of line — stay at the college as difficult as possible. Joan, who never thought past the college-graduation-marriage cycle, applies and is accepted to Yale law school with Katherine’s help. As for Giselle, well, she just thinks Katherine is amazing. The stereotypical characters do a stereotypical 180 by film’s end, but that doesn’t underscore its message, or the lovely, understated acting of its players — save Dunst, who goes over the top in creating a first-rate bee-otch. Katherine teaches her students to see art beyond its text book definition through new, modern movements, and, in an extended metaphor, to see their lives as more than what society has planned for them. But, in the end, Katherine is forced to accept that every woman has a choice, even if Katherine thinks it is the wrong one. That is the beauty of the movie. So few of us know, or remember, what women went through, the trail blazers who got us to the point where we have a choice; we are given a look into what it must have been like to be one of those avant-garde women. And though Katherine is disappointed that her ideas didn’t take root and create instant upheaval throughout the campus, the seeds are sown, and she does affect lives. Most of all, she makes her students think.

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