Here is the setting: An idealistic young teacher arrives at a well respected private school with the intention of making a difference in the lives and education of the students. This teacher soon runs up against a tradition bound administration as well as some tradition bound students. Soon enough the teacher begins to win over the students who are inspired by the teacher, but the administration is not so pleased by the radical new ideas and teaching methods used by this idealistic young teacher. What movie is this?
While I was talking about "Dead Poets Society", the above description can be used without any changes about 2003's "Mona Lisa Smile". Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is a young art history teacher from California newly arrived at the prestigious Wellesley College. She has definite ideas about the role of women in the 1950's, but Wellesley seems to be nothing more than an excellent school to prepare the young women to be a good wife and mother. While the academic standards are rigorous, the goal isn't for the woman to aspire to be somebody herself, but to help her husband be somebody. Watson is appalled by this and by the resistance she meets from the administration and even by some of the brightest students.
We are also introduced to some of the students, though we never get too much into their minds or lives. There is Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst). Betty is something of a snitch and seems to consider herself the purity police and is too full of herself. Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) is the student whom Katherine holds the most hope for. In Joan, Katherine sees a little bit of herself. Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is introduced only as the girl who, gasp, may have loose morals regarding men. Finally Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the slightly dumpy girl who just hopes to find a man.
This is really the Katherine Watson story and her influence on the girls, such as it is, and her frustration with Wellesley. If we changed the all girls college to an all boys high school and traded Julia Roberts for Robin Williams, we'd have "Dead Poets Society". But "Dead Poets Society" is a far better movie. It may not be fair to compare the two movies, but when "Mona Lisa Smile" is so clearly modeled on "Dead Poets Society" how can the comparison not be made? The main problem with "Mona Lisa Smile" is that it portrays 1950's Wellesley where the women are not expected to have minds after graduation nor are the expected to use them. It is difficult to see how the issues raised in "Mona Lisa Smile" are relevant today. "Dead Poets Society" dealt with academic pressure and the ability to think for oneself. "Mona Lisa Smile" touches upon the same issues, but does so in such a way that the problems just don't feel as important. This is all the more so because fifty years later the expectations on women in education are far different. "Dead Poets Society" is much more universal.
A minor issue, to place the movie in a historical context, is that I have read reviews questioning the accuracy of the portrayal of Wellesley in the 50's, and that the college was not the backwards wasteland which only expected women to marry and have children. I can't say whether or not that is the case, but it is worth noting that the filmmakers may have twisted what facts were available to make a lesser movie.