Wellesley College is shown to be a conservative woman’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where women are taught one thing and one thing only, and that is, how to stand behind her husband and be the perfect wife and mother. Among the students are Betty (played by Kirsten Dunst) whose mother is a trustee and has instilled ideas in Betty, of marrying any upward bound man no matter how morally corrupt he may be. Betty through her editorials in the college newspaper tries hard to discredit Katherine and claims that because of Katherine they are all heading towards communism.
Then there is Joan (played by Julia Styles) a girl who is smart enough to be accepted into Yale Law College, but perhaps not smart enough as she chooses marrying over going to study law. Giselle (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is known to be sexually advanced, and rumours claim she had slept with their young Italian professor. Lastly there is Constance (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) who is only concerned about her looks.
Amongst all this is Watson’s complicated love life as well. But, the movie is not about romance and each actor’s love angles. It’s more about each of the supporting star cast trying to find a way out of the gender mould created in that era. It is about Julia Roberts as Katherine and how even though she is the main lead, she does not over shadow any of the other characters, but merely acts as a conductor of change which takes place in the other actors.
The movie is about how free spirited young girls live and behave in a closed system, which with the arrival of Roberts is challenged and thrown open gradually. The girls begin find themselves, with Roberts’ guidance and beliefs. As a viewer you can’t help but identify with Katherine Watson and her students. Not for any other reason, but the fact that they are smart brave women.
Katherine is compelling as a teacher, to the extent that eventually all the girls look up to her and consider her their role model. She forces the students to look at the world through her eyes, and converts even the most difficult of them. She has been asked to return for the next term, because her course has gained immense popularity. But, she can only return if she promises to keep with the schools rules and regulations, which among other things prohibits her from having anything more than classroom subject related conversations with the girls.
In the end, Katherine is shown to have resigned and packed her bags, to travel through Europe. An enjoyable movie all in all, with vivid descriptions of what the 1950’s and 60’s were like in such conservative schools.