IN "MUSIC of the Heart," Saint Meryl, Our Divine Lady of Thespia, takes a sanctified bow as Roberta Guaspari, a stern but lovable violin teacher, single mother and magnificently self-deprecating presence.

This movie's positive agenda may lend itself well to classroom viewing. But "Music of the Heart," directed, inexplicably, by horrormeister Wes Craven, never transcends its public-service boundaries. If you're looking for entertainment first and heavy-handed message-making second, don't tune into "Music of the Heart." Its good intentions screech like a badly tuned violin.

As Roberta Guaspari, Streep is a fugitive in denial from a bad marriage who continues to hold a torch for her deadbeat husband in one hand while she wields a conductor's baton in the other.

When Roberta -- now in sole charge of children Nick (Michael Angarano) and Lexi (Henry Dinhoffer) -- seeks a job teaching violin at an East Harlem public school, principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett) balks at her lack of experience.

But Roberta doesn't accept rejection easily. After an impromptu recital in Janet's office -- in which Nick and Lexi play their violins for the principal -- Roberta gets a part-time job. But she makes that limited class time really count. In a matter of movie moments, she's got those fidgety, raucous children standing straight, bowing and loving that dead-white-male music, much to the chagrin of the school's music director (Cole Hawkins). His opposition to Roberta throughout her years there remains unexplained. Perhaps he's jealous of Streep's star billing, or just under-medicated.

What is Roberta's winning formula? A combination of good-natured banter and shudder-inducing criticism. When a parent complains about Roberta's occasional heavy hand, the children rally around their teacher. It seems the kids want her to yell at them. And after this vote of confidence, Roberta begins training generations of children, turning seemingly hopeless cases into musical prodigies.

It doesn't take enduring all two hours of this overextended opus to know you're in for a grand finale in a vaunted concert hall, attended by the boisterous cheers of parents, teachers and news reporters.

"Music of the Heart" is based on the life of the real Guaspari, who was also the subject of the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary "Small Wonders." But any real sentiment -- any real sense of what it was like for her to teach in Harlem -- turns to mush in the formulaic mixing bowl.

Screenwriter Pamela Gray's work is ellipsis-ridden. She covers too many highlights and traverses too much time to truly engage us. We get a sense of Roberta's yearnings and her character, but her emotional growth feels scattered and episodic.

She's surrounded, too, with passing characters who roll in and roll out of her life. Along comes Aidan Quinn as Roberta's early love interest. But after a commitment-or-else dust-up with Roberta, he's pretty much off to his next movie project. And her next, more permanent suitor (Jay O. Sanders) comes across as a friendly, dramatically remote idea rather than a living person.

If there's any life to this movie, it comes from unself-conscious moments among the young actors around Streep. Justin Spaulding and Jade Yorker make adorable little upstarts in her first class, for instance, and there's a line of cuties behind them. But like Quinn, they disappear too fast; although some show up for an emotional reunion. As for Gloria Estafan, who plays Roberta's teaching friend, and Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, who play themselves, they feel like guest stars visiting the set rather than real people.

There's nothing to applaud here, really. This is just another sentimental mushfest disguised as a movie, in keeping with "Mr. Holland's Opus." Next time, perhaps we can expect Nick Nolte to launch a thousand budding poets from Newark or Whoopi Goldberg to transform a thousand Appalachian children into piccolo-playing geniuses. Whatever the project, the odds are good it will aim for the heart but hit the gag reflex instead.

MUSIC OF THE HEART (PG, 124 minutes) -- Contains nothing particularly objectionable. Area theaters.