Mona Lisa Smile (2003), directed by Mike Newell and written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, conveys the critical lesson to progress even at the price of welcoming an ending. The film is a narration of the experiences of Professor Katherine Ann Watson, as written by a student, Elizabeth Warren, in her final editorial column for the school newspaper. Miss Watson is the newest addition to the faculty of History of Art at Wellesley College for the academic year of 1953. As a student of Literature and Visual Culture, this is a world that piqued my curiosity. However, as the credits rolled, I realised that I had not only experienced a beautiful setting, but imbibed valuable life lessons, that would dwell within me for years to come.
The film introduced me to its setting alongside Katherine, who accepts a job at Wellesley College and moves to Massachusetts from California. She is a fresh graduate who desires the position and expects it to be a good fit for herself. However, when she begins her job, she is met with resistance from the students and the faculty, making it a struggle to fit into the new space. Yet, by the end of the school year, she not only completes her course evaluation successfully but also manages to build an individual bond with each student. The professor whose first class was met with disappointment, eventually becomes so popular that the enrolment for her class the following year is the highest the department had ever received.
This information forces the hiring committee to invite her back for the following academic year but with the condition that her lesson plans be pre-approved by a supervisor. It places Katherine in the position to make a choice between subjugation or to let go of something she had essentially fallen in love with, teaching and her students. Her landlady, housemate and friend, Nancy Abbey and her students expect her to stay after receiving the invitation. However, she decides to depart because she realises staying would mean stifling her authentic self and she is unabashedly honest in her self-expression. Ultimately, she decided to conclude her journey at Wellesley and move onto unknown escapades.
Oftentimes we stretch things beyond their life span as a measure of success. These include simple experiences like films and TV series to significant life events like education, jobs and relationships. What could have been a crisp and wonderful experience is strained to the extent where the pleasure is a forgotten memory obscured by impatience and frustration. We are so engrossed by the fear of uncertainty that we accept the misery which is familiar. Katherine’s decision has helped me evaluate situations eliminating the approach that success would correspond to continuing. It has helped me accept a close when it is time and explore the next adventure by befriending change rather than fearing it.
A major reason for Katherine’s journey and relationships appearing so genuine and effective is the performances by its cast members who are able to bring the world alive. The rebellious professor Katherine Watson is played by Julia Roberts along with Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin as some of her students. A massive part of the appeal of this film and several others examining a teacher-student bond is the nostalgia of having experienced such a teacher, the longing for one or the aspiration to become one. This film demonstrates that the lessons absorbed outside of the classrooms are as significant, if not more, as the ones taught inside.
The idea of being a bohemian in not just our physical settings, but in our mindsets, opinions and beliefs is essential. It is crucial to question what is obsolete and to embrace the next quest even when we are uncertain. Uncertainty brings change and wandering can help us stumble unto wonders which would have been impossible to reach otherwise because, in the words of Betty Warren, “not all who wander are aimless”.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.