Saturday 30 December 2017

Movie Review: How To Make An American Quilt (1995)

An anthology about women's diverse experiences and perspectives, How To Make An American Quilt weaves a loose narrative about a young woman at the emotional crossroads spending the summer with her great aunt's circle of friends.

Finn (Winona Ryder) is in her mid-twenties, struggling to finish her Master's thesis and engaged to be married to carpenter Sam (Dermot Mulroney). She spends the summer at the country home of her great aunt Glady (Anne Bancroft), who is part of a quilting group led by housekeeper Anna (Maya Angelou). As the lazy days unfold and the friends gets to work on a wedding quilt for Finn, she learns their personal stories.
  • Finn's grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) has a strained relationship with her sister Glady, stemming from a moment of weakness when Hy's husband was on his deathbed.
  • Sophia (Lois Smith) is now cranky and bitter. As a young woman (played by Samantha Mathis) she was a sublime diver who fell in love and married geologist Preston (Loren Dean), but her married life did not unfold as she expected.
  • Em (Jean Simmons) is married to artist Dean (Derrick O'Connor), who has always had a wandering eye.
  • Constance (Kate Nelligan) first lost her dog and then her husband; her subsequent behaviour means that she is now a bit of a misfit in the group.
  • As a young black servant Anna was seduced by her boss' son Beck (Jared Leto); during the resulting pregnancy she became close with Glady.
  • Anna's daughter Marianna (Alfre Woodard) is a sophisticated free spirit who refused to commit to any man, but she carries one regret.
  • Finn's mother Anna (Kate Capshaw) has long been divorced, but she arrives late in the summer with a new surprise.
During the summer Finn also meets the extremely hunky Leon (Johnathon Schaech), and has to decide how much the potential long term commitment to Sam means to her.

An adaptation of the Whitney Otto book directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, How To Make An American Quilt enjoys relaxed pacing and a soulful perspective. Breathing deeply from the almost resigned stance of older women looking back, often with plenty of regret, the film offers plenty of themes and talking points. The Jane Anderson script avoids pat answers and easy resolutions; this is a compendium of several lives, women defined by their decisions as life's surprises rarely align with expectations.

The film's compilation structure is both its strength and its weakness. How To Make An American Quilt never lingers in one place for too long, as no fewer than eight stories share less than two hours of screen time. Proving that every person has a good tale to tell, Moorhouse gives equal due to each vignette, and the chapters creates and hold individual mystique.

At the same time the patchwork composition is what it is: sequential short stories told with expediency, tending to emphasize melodrama to quickly get to the point. It's not a stretch to imagine all eight stories as potential material for good full length features, but here only the headlines are on display.

The performances are uniformly good from a dream cast featuring veterans Burstyn, Bancroft, Simmons, and Nelligan, as well as poet and civil rights activist Angelou. Ryder holds her own, her relative lack of subtlety finding an understandable home as an emotive young woman a generation removed from all her companions.

Ultimately the convergent narrative is the collective wisdom that Finn will take away from her summer, and How To Make An American Quilt hits a solid target with an emphasis on the unconventional. The beauty of a quilt knitted by many hands is in its lack of coherent precision, the emotions seeping across the borders achieving imperfect perfection.

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