Mona Lisa Smile [2003]

Genre: Drama
Julia Roberts's command of the screen is so effortless, it's easy for moviegoers to take her for granted--but we shouldn't. Mona Lisa Smile--about a noncomformist teacher at a private school who encourages students to pursue their individuality--is pretty much an all-girls version of Dead Poets Society that mixes '50s fashions with '70s feminist thought. However, its lack of ambition doesn't diminish the talent that's gone into it: The writing and directing are well-honed and skillful; the actors--a talent-studded cast featuring Marcia Gay Harden, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Juliet Stevenson--are uniformly excellent. But without question, Mona Lisa Smile rides on Roberts's shoulders and she carries it with ease. She's possibly the only contemporary actor who simply owns a movie the way Bette Davis, Jean Arthur, or Claudette Colbert once did, radiating a engaging mix of intelligence, drive, and emotional warmth that cannot be matched. --Bret Fetzer

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