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Music of the Heart

Talk about curveballs. First twisted-film auteur David Lynch went G-rated with the well-received ''The Straight Story.'' Now horrormeister Wes Craven conducts ''Music of the Heart,'' an uplifting drama that shows he, too, may have new repertoire to perform.

The film is based on the 1996 Academy Award-nominated documentary ''Small Wonders,'' about violin teacher Roberta Guaspari's music program in East Harlem. Roberta is left with her two sons after her husband runs off with her best friend; she has little job experience because as a naval officer, her husband kept the family on the move. Vowing to start over, she takes the advice of an old friend (Aidan Quinn) and heads to New York for a position at a public alternative school.

The principal, played by Angela Bassett in her usual don't-give-me-any-hassle tone, remains skeptical, as does the music department head (''Their attentions don't go past do-re-mi,'' he says.). But an undaunted Roberta convinces the school to take her on as a sub. She even provides the child-size violins ? 50, in fact, that she bought in Greece.

Her first class gives her a hard time, but unlike Michelle Pfeiffer's inner-city teacher in ''Dangerous Minds,'' Roberta doesn't go home, put on a leather jacket and toss candy bars. She wins them over by being frank, driving and verbally abusive. When Roberta tries to tone down her words after a parent's complaint, the students demand she revert. ''I already had nice teachers. You added some variety,'' one says.

She also faces class and racial differences with tact and sensitivity, winning over a parent who's irate over her son learning ''dead white men's music'' and bringing along a student who couldn't practice because his grandmother was mugged.

Eventually, the program's popularity necessitates a lottery to win a slot in the class, but the Big Villain of inspirational-teacher movies, the school board, cuts back funding and cancels Roberta's program. She rallies, and salvation comes in the form of a fund-raising concert at Carnegie Hall, pairing her students onstage with violin virtuosos Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman in cameo appearances. ''Frasier's'' Jane Leeves and singer Gloria Estefan also contribute small roles.

Stories about a teacher who swoops in and ''saves'' the students while waging a valiant fight against the school system run the risk of rapidly dissolving into schmaltz. ''Music of the Heart'' avoids the sappy pitfalls of ''Mr. Holland's Opus'' and ''Dangerous Minds'' by eschewing wrenching emotional outbursts and the student's ''you made a difference'' speech, letting the difference speak for itself.

Streep, who was tapped for the role after Madonna dropped out two weeks before filming, usually catapults any film she's in onto the Oscar-buzz list. This film is no exception. As the frazzled Roberta, Streep is unglamorous and sincere; she fluctuates between being in control and losing her temper, spending much of the film yelling ? at her students, at the school and at her two sons (effectively played by Michael Angarano and Henry Dinhoffer as kids, Charlie Hofheimer and Kieran Culkin as teens). The film also shows Streep's proficiency on the violin, which is astounding considering she learned to play the instrument two months before filming began.

But despite Streep's power, the film's core of emotion is found in the students. Craven keeps things simple, allowing Streep to sometimes fade into the background and focusing instead on the faces of the children. Every reaction is genuine, from the elation and game-show excitability they experience when they win a spot in her class, to the pride they display at the last stroke of the bow.

The final concert scene is especially effective, not only for the delight of seeing violin legends stand alongside the children, but for the emotional forte of the setting. Most serious musicians have at least once dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall, standing on the vast stage, buoyed only by applause. For Streep and her students, the dream becomes reality, and the applause is well deserved.

* MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language and sensuality .

'Music of the Heart''

Meryl Streep: Roberta Guaspari

Aidan Quinn: Brian Sinclair

Angela Bassett: Janet Williams

Cloris Leachman: Assunta Guaspari

Gloria Estefan: Isabel Vasquez

A Miramax Films presentation. Director Wes Craven. Producers Susan Kaplan, Marianne Maddalena, Alan Miller, Walter Scheuer. Executive producers Sandy Gallin, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay Pamela Gray. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editor Patrick Lussier. Music Mason Daring. Production designer Bruce Alan Miller. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.