The creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream is toying with our conscience again, only this time his weaponry isn't Freddy's claws or a murderous prank caller. Director Wes Craven's latest endeavor, Music of the Heart, switches gears to more virtuous human emotions in order to tell us the story of one woman's triumph and the revival of a downtrodden urban community. Oddly enough, this film is just as powerful as any of Craven's horror films and can evoke strong emotion and sentiment, if you let it.
Music of the Heart begins like any of the other "triumphant teacher" dramas we've all seen. Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds both crossed my mind as I sat through the first hour of Roberta Guaspari's (Meryl Streep) struggle to teach a handful of young urban kids how to play the violin. This part of the story is hackneyed and clichéd, and you've seen it before--if not in a previous movie than in some boring after-school special. But where other "triumphant teacher" dramas fail because they concentrate too much on the saintliness of the teacher, this movie succeeds in its captivation of Roberta Guaspari's character flaws, and her struggle as a single mother attempting to raise her two children in East Harlem. When the film expands beyond the existence of just "Roberta the teacher" and into the rest of her life, the film becomes genuinely enjoyable.
About an hour and a half into Music of the Heart, it zaps you ten years into the future. All of a sudden, you're in the nineties. Roberta's kids are older and more mature and although she's still single, she is now an accomplished teacher. However, her fate is not yet sealed as she faces a career-threatening crisis that jeopardizes all she has worked for.
This is where the film really takes off and the strong supporting cast kicks in. School principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett -- How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Jane Leeves (Frasier) both are superb in support of Streep, who puts on yet another credible chameleon act. Her teenage children, Nick (Charlie Hofheimer) and Lexi (Kieran Culkin) are both uplifting and extremely affable as they help their mother cope. Even Gloria Estefan, in her acting debut, rounds out an excellent supporting cast. With all its cylinders clicking, the film takes a kind of Mr. Holland's Opus path toward a conclusion filled with grandeur.
I don't consider myself overly emotional, but this movie is really touching: I haven't felt tears swelling up like that since Curly Sue with James Belushi. I don't know if it was just my mood or the violin music coupled with some powerful surges of sentimentality. Decide for yourself, and let me know.