Documentaries celebrating the counterculture of the late 1960s have never been in short supply, even more so now that we’re bumping up against some crucial forty-year anniversaries, as well as impending (or imagined) mortality for the baby boom generation. Archaic footage of footloose-n-free Haight Ashbury, circa 1967-69, is a recurring staple of TV documentaries on the era, and this footage of freewheeling freaks was downright scandalous to middle America when it was first shown. One particular film that struck a deep chord at the time was Ralph Arlyck’s “SEAN”, from 1969, which followed a 4-year-old boy who happened to be Arlyck’s neighbor around the neighborhood. Born to hippie parents and living in a communal house near the corner of Haight & Cole streets, the 4-year-old Sean talked to Arlyck about smoking pot, speed freaks sleeping on his floor, and why he hated the cops. Sean was a streetwise, smart-alecky kid with a cool hippie haircut. He was hard not to like, and yet his young life seemed far more scattered & wild than most adults could stomach, then or now. It caused a stir and was shown at film festivals around the world; a few years later Arlyck, himself disillusioned a bit with the Haight and ready to grow up & move on, moved to rural New York and started a family.
In the mid 1990s Arlyck decided to revisit Sean in San Francisco and in the process revisit the “hippie ideals” he once had. 2005’s “FOLLOWING SEAN” picks up with a single, idealistic 31-year-old Sean and leaves him at 40, in the process of divorcing & raising his son, yet generally upbeat about his life and his life choices. Sean, as it turns out, turned out just fine. “FOLLOWING SEAN” is at times a powerful and gripping look into the nature of work and responsibility, and the generational differences between the hippie-era baby boomers and their progeny. Sean himself is an open-minded yet healthily cynical grown-up, who loves and respects his parents but mocks their bohemian pretensions & lack of responsibility just the same. The first 30 minutes of the film are outstanding, as good as documentary filmmaking gets. It reminded me a lot of “51 BIRCH STREET”, another great documentary from the past year that comes to grips with the decisions of one’s own parents. Alas, Arlyck doesn’t know how to elegantly extract himself from the story and keep himself from becoming the center of the film, so in addition to Sean, in the second half of the film you also get way too much of Arlyck’s naval-gazing look at his own choices, which aren’t particularly interesting. There are far too many irrelevant asides about the filmmaker’s wife, or father, or kids, asides that seemed like straining to me (or padding to make a 90-minute run length and to get it into theaters). This film, excellent as it is, could be much more powerful with about 20 more minutes of Sean reflecting on his life & his generation, and about 15 less minutes of Arlyck doing the same. A great rental for sure, or catch it on PBS like we did.
Celluloid Hut Rating: B.