There's the joy of reaching a seemingly lost student and the heartbreak when his life takes a sudden, tragic turn. There's the emerging radiance of a student who finally accomplishes a difficult task through hard work, perseverance, and the right amount of encouragement. And there is the suffocating constriction of politics and bureaucracy that threaten to choke those moments of real joy. All of these are part and parcel in the long-time career of a dedicated teacher.
The movie knows this and wisely incorporates these events, investing them with deep feeling but with no melodrama. And, Mr. Holland's life as a teacher rings true from beginning to end.
As contrast, we are also shown Holland's personal life, which begins to languish as his professional one picks up steam. His marriage becomes strained when he is at a loss on how to relate to his deaf son since music is such a vital part of his own life. But, these problems become entwined in the fabric of Holland's existence as he makes choices that close doors while opening others.
All the elements work in this movie. The lead performances are superb, and the supporting cast is topnotch with a few early performances by actors who went on to notable careers. And, I could talk more extensively about my favorite moments in this movie, but it would spoil the journey of seeing how those moments come about.
I will say that Mr. Holland's Opus does have a happy ending. That isn't a spoiler because the real joy of this film is how Mr. Holland earns and finally reaches it.