The patchwork that is “How to Make an American Quilt” is ambitious, poetic, muddled and softer than the inside of a toasted marshmallow. If good intentions were automatically rewarded, this would be a runaway hit. But its often aimless and confused nature will be too daunting for most, resulting in no better than passable theatrical returns and OK life in ancillaries.
Finn Dodd (Winona Ryder) is 26 and confused. She’s wrestling with a thesis on handicraft and culture and on the cusp of marriage to her carpenter boyfriend, Sam (Dermot Mulroney). Seeking a bit of breathing space, she retreats to the small Northern California town of her youth and the sanctuary of a quilting circle of family and friends.
Jane Anderson’s adaptation of the Whitney Otto novel relies heavily on literary conceits, to its undoing. We are told that the challenge of making something whole from fragments requires “balance and harmony.” But there are no rules to reach that end other than to rely on instinct and be brave.
So, for those looking for connections, the craft of quiltmaking is a lot like life. Running parallel to the group’s project of a wedding quilt for Finn is the young woman’s personal search for balance and harmony. That quest runs through the life stories of the seven members of the bee. Each has a little life lesson to impart, gleaned from painful memories.
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse tries valiantly not to make the mess of characters and incidents too ungainly or too symmetrical. It’s a significant challenge, considering the weight given flashbacks and the demands of providing each member of the sizable cast his or her moment.
The real dilemma is that this sweet, sincere tale doesn’t have a lot to tell that’s novel.
As an acting vehicle, “Quilt” is also a letdown. At best, cast members have a fleeting opportunity to display a glimmer of their talent. Ryder has the thankless task of being the cipher for the legion of characters past and present who tread on the carpet of this tale.
Still, several, including Alfre Woodard and Jean Simmons, manage to make their instants vivid. Joanna Going and Tim Guinee electrify one vignette that could well be a movie of its own. Tech credits provide a folksy veneer to the human comedy. Cameraman Janusz Kaminski takes great delight in painterly homages that vary from American Gothic to the Norman Rockwell oeuvre.
But dramatically, more ultimately proves less, and the jumble feels like it should have been torn apart and rethreaded with stronger material.