MOVIE REVIEW – Women’s Stories Make a Meaningful ‘Quilt’

San Francisco Chronicle, October 6 1996

MOVIE REVIEW – Women’s Stories Make a Meaningful ‘Quilt’

By Peter Stack

RATING: (WILD APPLAUSE)

HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT: Drama. Starring Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Nelligan, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. (PG-13; 109 minutes. At the Kabuki, Century Plaza and other Bay Area theaters).

Flat out, ‘How to Make an American Quilt’ is a wonderful movie — soulful, funny, eccentric and filled with a love of female humanity. It’s the kind of so-called women’s movie that should attract everyone, male and female, and even the men will go away a little wiser and feeling befriended.

Winona Ryder is a joy throughout this oddly titled movie, based on the novel by Whitney Otto, which examines the lives of several women through the stories they tell while making a wedding quilt for Finn (Ryder), a UC Berkeley grad student. The stories, told in deftly crafted flashbacks that are stitched painstakingly through love and determination, become part of the quilt.

Ryder is cute, fragile, smart, resilient and funny. But she brings something else, too. She has the look of a young woman putting away the temporary distractions and infatuations of girlhood as she gradually seizes upon what it means — in unexpectedly painful and joyful ways — to be a woman. She is simply remarkable in portraying the confusion and slow, awkward transformation of her character. The role requires her to be both a little passive, as a witness and listener to the quilting women, and to actively pursue her own instincts as she becomes the story of her own life, sometimes with frightening results.

Any doubts about Ryder as an actress were assuaged by ‘Little Women’ and are put forever to rest with this film — she’s a major, gutsy talent. Ryder is surrounded by a fascinating, gifted ensemble of actors in this amazing, soul-cleansing gab-and-stitch session.

The cast is made up of Ellen Burstyn (the grandmother), Anne Bancroft (the great-aunt), and Maya Angelou, Kate Nelligan, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith and Alfre Woodard as Finn’s extended family. At grandmother Hy’s old house in a California orange grove, the women gather to make a quilt for Finn, who is thinking over a marriage proposal by a carpenter named Sam (Dermot Mulroney).

Finn has ventured to her grandmother’s rural house primarily to get her act together and complete a graduate thesis after several false starts. She’s settled on writing a treatise about women’s handiwork in tribal cultures, failing at first to realize that it is exactly what is occurring around her. Fortunately for the film, the women are worlds apart as personalities. It is assorted life paths that the movie wants to explore. And ultimately, it is how people can be individuals and yet come together as trusted, if not always harmonious, friends that imbues the picture with a wondrous spirit.

The film is complex, and sometimes seems a little disjointed as it moves from one story to another told in flashbacks featuring young versions of the quilters. But heart and a kind of crazy-quilt pattern to the photography keep it together. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse (the Australian who produced `Muriel’s Wedding,’) did a first-rate job putting the diverse pieces together without sacrificing the lopsided nature of life or occasional whimsy. From architectural patterns to the quilted look of orange groves shot from above, ‘How to Make and American Quilt’ is an accomplished quilt itself.

Each woman tells her story. One (told by Angelou) goes back to slavery times and involves an enchanting tale of a young woman harkening to an elder’s advice on finding love. Another is about a young beauty who becomes an artist’s model seduced by the artist; she marries him only to find he’s a philanderer. Another woman dreams of the athletic joys she sacrificed to marriage and kids; yet another of the quilters bears a tragic story of widowhood.

What really sets the film apart is its depiction of women as fleshed-out people who can be eccentric, sometimes cranky or stubborn while also becoming beautiful and heroic in the eyes of someone like young Finn, who has long known the women but never has really looked at them before. Yet the film never lets its point turn a great women’s film into a women-only film. That’s no small accomplishment.