MONA LISA SMiLE Smart girls strike back.
Mona Lisa Smile

dir. Newell

Opens Fri Dec 19

Various Theaters

About two-thirds of the way through Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile, the anger of Betty (Kirsten Dunst's viperous Wellesley Girl) splinters away, releasing a storm of cruelty that aches with the character's underlying self-hatred. Rather than strike back, however, Warren's classmate, Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal), wordlessly wraps her arms around the shaking, still-screaming girl and, by sheer force of empathy, directs the torrent to cease. This scene is in the tradition of Newell's 1992 film Enchanted April, and it helps demonstrate the director's canny awareness of the secret language spoken silently between women.

The film's principal role is that of Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a foreword-thinking UCLA graduate teaching art to the all-girl student body. Katherine quickly becomes frustrated with the eager willingness of "the brightest students in the country" to graduate with degrees in political science, then settle immediately into marriage. "I thought I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives!" spits Roberts when she grows increasingly incensed, unable to understand the roles these bright minds have chosen for themselves.

However, Roberts' performance takes a backseat to those of Dunst, and Gyllenhaal. The latter's character has an outward façade of bubbling abandon and bravado (she's had an affair with the school's randy language professor, played with plenty of smarm by Dominic West) that hardly conceals her robust vulnerability. Dunst nails the tremulous energy her character requires to transcend parody. Betty's ugly "honesty" (she writes peevish opinion pieces for the school newspaper) is an excuse for her to be a bitch, without suffering the damages it might do to her marriagability quotient.

In one of the moments that gives the film its name, Roberts presents the Mona Lisa and asks her students, "Is it any good?" instructing the girls to wonder if the smiling woman (and they, themselves) is indeed happy, while also forcing them to venture an original opinion on a question that has no right or wrong answer. The modern scientific theory suggesting it's the limitations of the human eye that cause the painting's smile to disappear, can certainly be applied to the false contentment of Mona Lisa Smile's characters. Direct vision is excellent at picking up detail, but rarely does it notice shadows.