Synonymous with a genre in a way no-one's managed since Hitchcock, you can see why horror-meister Wes Craven might want to try something new, something different, something that stretches his undoubted talents. That's easy to understand. What's not so easy to understand, however, is why the end result is so frustratingly ordinary...
From the sublime (Stand And Deliver) to the ridiculous (Dangerous Minds), the story of the teacher inspiring a bunch of kids has been told a dozen times before. There's nothing wrong with having another crack at it, so long as you offer something fresh, but Wes - - despite happily subverting the rules of the horror movie - - makes no attempt to divert from this established blueprint.
Every cliché rears its head. There's a gruff headmistress (Bassett) and a supportive younger teacher (Estevan). One of the little girls wears leg braces and one of the little boys runs with the gangs. After pulling her kid from the violin class, a doubting parent accuses Roberta of being just another white woman trying to patronise po' black folks (Roberta wins her round later, of course). It's lazy stuff.
The lead character herself is no more inspired. Craven lets Streep indulge her external range of method tics, but never pushes her into developing the inside of her character quite as well. Thus she can mime violin playing like an expert, but you never understand what really motivates this tough-love Mary Poppins clone.
A fractured sense of time (the dialogue makes constant references to tight deadlines, but there's never any convincing impression of time passing) and some distinctly average camerawork do nothing to halt the feeling that this is little more than a journeyman effort.
But the film does have one serious Get Out Of Jail Free card: the music itself. The final Fiddle Fest, with its gloriously rendered ensemble string pieces, edges the whole thing above the level of Cable Movie Of the Week. Any film where the music makes you want to stand up and applaud deserves to be cut some slack.