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Women's Vignettes Pattern Quilt of Wisdom

MOVIES focusing primarily on women are so unusual in Hollywood that ''How to Make an American Quilt'' takes on news value simply by making it to the screen.

Based on Whitney Otto's popular novel, it features a largely female cast in a series of brief stories dealing with love and loss as seen through distinctly feminine eyes. While it doesn't bring many new insights to the familiar situations it explores, it has enough dignity and charm to win over audiences looking for an evening of quietly sentimental entertainment.

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True to its title, ''How to Make an American Quilt'' is stitched together from a number of separate story-patches united by a common theme. The picture's main setting is a fine old house in California where a graduate student named Finn comes to spend a relaxing summer with her grandmother and great aunt. She wants to finish her thesis on female rituals and handiwork, and decide whether she really wants to marry her current boyfriend.

Since her grandma's home serves as headquarters for a long-established quilting bee, she spends many hours observing local women as they complete their latest project, a quilt with ''Where Love Resides'' as its motif. While they work, they regale Finn with tales of romantic attachment from their own lives, guiding her to a better understanding of human relationships.

The stories in ''How to Make an American Quilt'' are fairly varied, covering an extended time period - one anecdote begins way back in the 19th century - and dealing with everything from marriage and commitment to passion, jealousy, and resentment. The characters are also racially and ethnically diverse and represent a wide range of age groups.

This being the case, it's disappointing that the filmmakers tell the different tales in pretty much the same style, giving the movie a sameness that contradicts its heterogeneous subject matter. The picture remains cool, collected, and attractive even when the narrative goings-on cry out for a more unpredictable approach.

This lack of flexibility is surprising from Australia-based director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who made the tough-minded ''Proof,'' a boldly eccentric drama about a blind photographer, and produced the inventive ''Muriel's Wedding,'' a wild and woolly comedy about a perpetual outsider. Aiming for enough conventionality to ensure good box-office results, she has chosen the warmth of familiarity over the excitement of discovery - an understandable choice, given the rules of the Hollywood game, but not a very stimulating one.

Jane Anderson wrote the screenplay, which does a neat job of connecting the various plot-lines while putting an emphasis on death, infidelity, and extramarital sex that may be off-putting for some moviegoers. Winona Ryder continues her rise to full maturity as Finn, with firm support from Alfre Woodard, Kate Capshaw, Anne Bancroft, Kate Nelligan, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, and poet Maya Angelou, among others.

The film was produced by Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, sustaining their ongoing commitment to movies by and about women. The gifted Janusz Kaminski, best known for his superb work on ''Schindler's List,'' did the picture-perfect cinematography.

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* ''How to Make an American Quilt'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains some sex, nudity, drug use, and vulgar language.

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