How to Make an American Quilt
Jocelyn Moorhouse’s compassionate How to Make an American Quilt is so distinctly female that I initially was skeptical of how my viewing experience would ultimately orient itself in the grand scheme of things. Because the film’s so dedicated to bringing universality to the stories of women of all ages, I, not being a member of the film’s predominant sex, wasn’t so sure it’d be fair to be analyzing a movie decidedly not made for me. Never will I share, or necessarily understand, the experiences women go through on a day to day basis, and in effect did I expect to take on the role of an outsider looking in without much of an idea as to where to position myself.
But despite a first act that made me fairly positive I’d be in for Divine Tales of the Ya Ya Sisterhood-level saccharine to be Silkwood-scrubbed off my psyche post-viewing, How to Make an American Quilt, for all its emotional manipulations, is a fairly captivating women’s picture that wins you over with its giving performances and its conclusively drawn plot-based intricacies. Perhaps I didn’t connect with it in the same ways a woman in her confusing twenties or a woman in her retrospective sixties undoubtedly will, but my lacking of true blue empathy didn’t stop me from becoming enraptured by the stories told during the film’s tender two-hours.
Since this is a film that finds much of its depth through flashback and the art of the revelation, important is the having of a grounded central character to work as the glue to keep things held together. In How to the Make an American Quilt, we find that vital protagonist in Finn Dodd (Winona Ryder), a twenty-six-year-old Berkeley student spending the summer with her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and great aunt (Anne Bancroft).
Her devoting the next three months to writing her master’s thesis within the walls of a vast, secluded Californian home isn’t necessarily the result of solely wanting a quiet place to get work done, though. She’s engaged to be married to the nice, but dull, Sam (Dermot Mulroney), and because she’s not so sure he’s the one and because she’s not so sure what exactly she wants to do with the rest of her life, Finn figures that engaging in meaningful conversation with her beloved relatives and their wizened circle of friends might give her some sense of as to what she really desires.
So she spends the entirety of her stay writing, thinking, talking, and, especially, listening, listening to the stories of more experienced women and how their lives have been affected over the decades in response to their romantic decisions. From these exchanges does Finn slowly crawl toward self-actualization.
And who wouldn’t, especially in the face of an onslaught of various recountings that listening to your heart isn’t always the best method of decision making? How to Make an American Quilt is comprised of a sizable ensemble (additionally made up by Lois Smith, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan, Maya Angelou, and Alfre Woodard) that (surprisingly) cohesively take turns in their indulging of Ryder’s Finn in their life stories.
Though screenwriter Jane Anderson makes the mistake of beginning this trend of storytelling too early, telling Burstyn and Bancroft’s shared tale a mere ten minutes into the movie, the film steadily gains momentum and outdoes itself time and time again with its ability to provide its characters with sympathetic backstories. (Most stirring of all is the account of Angelou’s Anna, who, in her youth, had an affair with a white man [Jared Leto], was left pregnant, was nearly destroyed, but was still able to recover from the potentially catastrophic situation through kindness.)
How to Make an American Quilt oftentimes delves into the trappings of schmaltz that I’m not so inclined to ignore, and Anderson’s script accidentally leaves Finn as the most one-dimensional character of the film due to her thorough characterizations of the supporting cast. But like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, How to Make an American Quilt is an excursion into female-centric entertainment able to turn even the most disbelieving of a viewer into a believer. Bittersweet and told with the sad-eyed but nostalgic glow of a fireside chat, the movie, though imperfect, is effectively emotive and masterfully performed — excuse its tonal blemishes and you’ll find yourself getting lost in the lives of these vulnerable others. B