A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie has very explicit sexual references for a PG-13 movie, including promiscuous characters, adultery, and discussion of birth control (which was illegal in the era portrayed in the movie). Characters drink, some get tipsy, and some abuse alcohol. Just about everyone smokes. Characters use strong language including an ugly anti-Semitic epithet. Strengths of the movie include its efforts to address the issues that would be raised by the feminists of the 1960s and its positive portrayal of a gay character who is accepted without prejudice (though dismissed from her position for other reasons).
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What's the story?
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is an art history teacher who comes to Wellesley, "the most conservative college in the nation" in the very conservative 1950s. At first, Katherine is intimidated by the students. They have an easy mastery of the reading material and a "claws underneath their white gloves" ruthlessness in preserving the status quo, which means their status at the top of the social heap. Betty (Kirsten Dunst) is the most ruthless and acts as the leader of the girls. Katherine's other students include brainy Joan (Julia Stiles), plain and insecure Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), and reckless Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In between their lessons on poise and how to entertain their future husbands' bosses, Katherine tries to teach them to question the conventional assumptions about art and about their dreams about the lives they want to lead. Confronted about her teaching methods, Katherine must examine her own dreams in order to teach her students the lesson she wants them to learn.
Is it any good?
MONA LISA SMILE adds up to glossy entertainment that is a long way from art. In the movie, a vibrant and independent-minded teacher shows her students a paint-by-numbers kit for a Van Gogh picture to show them the difference between art that is insightful and meaningful and mindless repetition of pretty images. The problem is that the movie has a paint-by-numbers script and little more to offer than pretty images.
All of the actresses look wonderful in their elegant little hats, white gloves, twin-sets, tulle, and pearls. And teacher-student is one of the most reliably appealing relationships to portray in a movie. But there is no real insight or spirit in the movie and its dumbed-down portrayal of the post-WWII, pre-Betty Friedan era is particularly disappointing, limited to images of conformity like girls rowing crew and practicing synchronized swimming and a poster explaining the ladylike way to cross one's legs and references to the wish to return to the "normal" days before the war. Katherine's character is inconsistent to the point of being erratic, especially with regard to her own romantic involvement. Roberts is reduced to relying on movie star tricks like her "game girl" laugh and moist gaze to fill the gaps.
Talk to your kids about ...
- In theaters: December 19, 2003
- On DVD or streaming: March 9, 2004
- Cast: Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst
- Director: Mike Newell
- Studio: Columbia Tristar
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 110 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sexual content and thematic issues
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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