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Film Title

How to Make an American Quilt


Jocelyn Moorhouse


  • Winona Ryder as Finn Dodd
  • Anne Bancroft as Glady Joe
  • Ellen Burstyn as Hy
  • Alfre Woodard as Marianna
  • Maya Angelou as Anna
  • Kate Nelligan as Constance
  • Jean Simmons as Em
  • Lois Smith as Sophia
  • Kate Capshaw as Sally Dodd
  • Dermot Mulroney as Sam
  • Jonathon Schaech as Leon

A heartwarming tribute to female friendship and the shaping of life’s experiences, How to Make an American Quilt is a very sweet and enjoyable movie. It’s nothing revolutionary or startlingly original, but it’s story of looking to the past in order to unlock the future is beautifully directed and acted.

Finn Dodd is a 26-year-old graduate student, who is working on a thesis over the summer. She can’t quite settle on a topic and always changes her mind when she thinks she’s got the right parts. This confusion and inability to come to a decision extends to her boyfriend Sam, who has just proposed. Finn obviously cares about him, but is deeply unsure of whether marriage is a good idea for her. While mulling things over, she goes to visit her Great Aunt Glady Joe and Grandmother Hy, who themselves are sisters usually at each other’s throats. They are both part of a quilting group that includes wise leader Anna; her free-spirited daughter Marianna; stern Sophia; grieving Constance and quiet Em. They are currently in the process of making a wedding quilt for Finn and in their own ways, they each inspire her and give her support in her time of indecision. Over the summer, conflicted Finn is regaled with stories of love from their pasts; some tragic and some inspiring. We glimpse the lessons these older women have learned; from how Glady Joe and Hy became more than a little strained, why Sophia turned into such a battle-axe and in general how love is what you make of it. Also present is a hunky guy named Leon, who takes a shine to Finn and potentially throws a spanner in the works. It all comes down to whether she is ready to make a commitment or live her life in freedom.

Jocelyn Moorhouse beautifully conjures up the loving and touching lessons of life in a straightforward but effective way. We become like Finn, learning about the women who came before her and their experiences with love. Moorhouse aims for the emotions and heart with How to Make an American Quilt, and succeeds in getting you invested in the brief flashes of events that these women now speak of. As sentimental as some of it is, the gentleness and often low-key approach keeps the film on a pleasing level without slipping into overly histrionic content. the pleasures in are listening to the various experiences of these women and how young Finn reacts to them. From heartbreak and upheavals to the starts of companionship, all the stories have some weight on her and impact. Like with any film that weaves together an ensemble story line however, some of the arcs come off better than others that are patchy. This is only to be expected really as it would be impossible to craft something that gave every strand, without it turning into a marathon of a movie. The stories that make the most emotive impression are the ones of Hy and Glady Joe and the flashbacks to Sophia’s early life; where she had some promise but never got the chance to enjoy it due to the inevitability of timing. They are played out in organic and poignant fashion that knows how to get your care. The other stories all have currency, though more than a couple may have been better if expanded upon. If I was to compare this movie to something, the equivalent would be a quilt itself. It’s got some rough edges and is well-worn, but has that cosy and snug feeling that lifts your spirits. The luscious cinematography renders everything with a distinct glow. Thomas Newman’s stirring score is a big plus in this feel good movie.

If there is anyone who can play indecision and curiosity convincingly, it’s Winona Ryder. With her naturally inquisitive and youthful face, she’s excellent casting for Finn. All the confusion and searching questions are there, as she listens to the stories of the past in hopes of unlocking her future.  Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn provide gentle humour, classy depth and consummate professionalism as the feuding sisters, whose grievances are plain to see but whose love for the other more than combats anything completely severing them. Alfre Woodard has the right bohemian air and fun for her role of effervescent Marianna. The wisdom and dignified grace of Maya Angelou stunningly embodies the passionate leader of the quilting group Anna. Angelou possesses a nuanced voice of experience and clarity that is impossible to ignore. I could listen to her voice all day it is that soothing and imbued with sage. Kate Nelligan and Jean Simmons are both moving as two of the women, realising they are linked through one of their husbands philandering. Lois Smith captures the well of sadness arising from someone whose ambitions were cut short, resulting in a hostility and bitterness of character. Kate Capshaw is a breath of fresh air in her small but important appearance as Finn’s flighty mother. She seems very irresponsible but what she ends up saying is quite beneficial and unexpected. Whether big or small in size of parts, all of the ladies here do good work. Dermot Mulroney does well with his limited part of Finn’s boyfriend, letting the female cast members take the lion’s share. Johnathon Schaech is largely there to provide the temptation for Finn, complete with the fact that he never seems to be wearing a shirt.

it isn’t going to win prizes for innovation, but the beating heart and gentleness of How to Make an American Quilt is effervescent that you won’t be able to resist its charms. Just cuddle up and enjoy this nice fable on life and sisterhood.