Embarrassing parents make great film characters – but 20th Century Women goes too far

Unlike the fraught parenting comedy Toni Erdmann, now on release, it capitulates too much to its cringe-worthy mother protagonist.

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Embarrassing parents are so much more fun in cinema than in real life. We can experience at one remove a version of any embarrassment we might have felt as children about our own parents.

The eccentric Dorothea Fields, played by Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, is a treat of a movie character, largely because she would have been such a cringe-magnet for any real, self-conscious teenager who had to be parented be her. If age, geography and era were no barrier, I like to think she might have got on rather well with another embarrassing parent: Winifred (Peter Simonischek) in Maren Ade’s fraught comedy Toni Erdmann. The hell they could raise together! In both cases, we can feel glad that there is so much of Dorothea and Winifred on the screen – and relieved if we have rather less of such people in our lives.

Chatting with the firemen who have extinguished her blazing old jalopy in a supermarket carpark, Dorothea invites them all along to a party she’s having that evening. Her 14-year-old son Jamie (the newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) tells her that this is not the done thing. You don’t simply invite firemen to your shindig.

Nor, I suppose, do you write ridiculously implausible notes to excuse your son’s absence from school or argue with the bank for him to have his own account while he is still a child or entrust his emotional education partly to two younger women, the photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and the wistful Julie (Elle Fanning) who is not much older than he is.

Well, Dorothea does all those things. And Bening has a particularly glorious knack in this film for staring the world straight in the eye and daring it to blink first. Her plain-speaking, often oblivious abruptness would be unconscionable in reality. But, once again, it is movie gold. “You don’t have very many funny lines, do you?” she says bluntly to an easy-going carpenter (Billy Crudup). How rude. She’s right, though. He doesn’t. The most interesting thing about him is that he makes his own shampoo.

If there is one thing about which she is painfully aware, though, it is the distance between her and Jamie. Her own upbringing has not equipped her to deal with his life. Hearing him playing a Raincoats album, she asks: “Can’t things just be pretty?” Reflecting on her smoking habit, she says: “It wasn’t bad for you when I started. It was stylish.”

And Mike Mills’ script is excellent at articulating the absence felt by many parents, not only the extravagantly embarrassing ones, when their children go out into adolescence and adulthood unmonitored. “You get to see him out in the world as a person,” Dorothea tells Abbie. Then, sadly, she adds: “I never will.”

The film has a terrific soundtrack (the bouncy, twangy Talking Heads song “The Big Country” is a particular delight) but it is almost drowned out by another sound – the grinding of gears between the generations.

Dorothea is based on Mills’ own mother, who used to take him to museum openings as her date according to a recent New Yorker profile. “But there were so many things I missed,” he told that magazine. “You couldn't be sad in her house. And anytime I reached out to her or asked a question that made her feel vulnerable, I got shut down.”

20th Century Women is perhaps a little too dependent on the dynamic energy it gets from Dorothea’s personality to make us feel her limitations. She is the centre of the movie and it needs her too much to challenge her. It’s also a film which guides our reactions very carefully. That doesn’t happen so much in Toni Erdmann, which never lets you know in advance where it might be heading. That film leaves plenty of space for us to decide for ourselves what effect Winifred’s behaviour might be having on his superficially uptight daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), on whom he descends uninvited.

One reading is that she needs to loosen up and he is just the man to show her how. But I’m more inclined to see his tomfoolery as hostile – he imposes his sense of humour on people in the form of practical jokes, without wondering what that might say about his own desire to control and dictate every situation he comes across.

Whereas 20th Century Women is ultimately a soothing film, Toni Erdmann is a subversive, disruptive one that doesn’t give you the luxury of signposting our responses. Stories abound about audiences cheering spontaneously at one sequence in particular, when Ines shrugs off casually some of her inhibitions during a musical number. I’m not surprised. The movie gives us room to experience emotion unmediated.

20th Century Women, deeply charming though it is, takes its cues from Dorothea’s parenting. It may seem all loosey-goosey but there’s a dictatorial streak underneath, as there is in so much US filmmaking, indie or otherwise.

20th Century Women opens 10 February. Toni Erdmann is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.