At first glance, How to Make an American Quilt looks like a Winona Ryder greatest-hits package: Reality Bites a Little Woman. As in Reality, Ryder plays a Gen Xer unsure of what to do with her life — here she’s a Berkeley grad student contemplating marriage to a carpenter (Dermot Mulroney). As in Women, Ryder finds her way with the help of an extended family of eccentric females — a rural California quilting bee that includes her great-aunt (Anne Bancroft) and her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn).
Soon, however, it becomes clear that Quilt is actually cut from the same cloth as Fried Green Tomatoes and The Joy Luck Club. Through a string of flashbacks reminiscent of those hit ”chick flicks,” Ryder’s Finn learns from the travails of her foremothers. The moral of each story is the same: Men stink. Yet, rendered with minimal sanctimony by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof) and screenwriter Jane Anderson (HBO’s Texas Cheerleader movie), most of the tales spin off in diverting directions.
Though she’s the lead, Ryder plays a passive listener, a role at which she’s most convincing when transfixed by pot-smoking sisters Burstyn and Bancroft. A study in contrasts, Burstyn is as subtle as Bancroft is hammy. Poet Maya Angelou executes Quilt‘s finest turn as an ex-domestic and leader of the sewing circle. Her cadences may not be those of a professional thespian, but Angelou knows how to use her wonderfully fluid voice to tell a story. This kind of movie is why God created Best Supporting Actress Oscars.
The teeming cast isn’t seamless. Two of Ryder’s Little Women sibs, Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes, fare poorly. Mathis allegedly ages from an adolescent to the mother of a college-bound daughter, though she barely looks old enough to vote. Danes doesn’t resemble Bancroft enough to pass for a younger version of her character. Among Quilt‘s men, only Rip Torn (as Bancroft’s morally weak husband) and the immensely likable Mulroney evoke more than one dimension.
Despite a few threadbare patches, How to Make an American Quilt hangs together nicely. The characters sneak up on you; before you know it, you care about them. When Moorhouse resorts to a mawkish climax, mixing melodrama with magic realism, you buy it because her film is as warm and cozy as…well, you get the picture. B