The personal diary docu — where the story of the filmmaker is wrapped around the story he is covering — receives a problematic workout in “Following Sean.” Documaker Ralph Arlyck updates his highly controversial 15-minute short subject “Sean” (1969) about a 4-year-old hippie in Haight-Ashbury. In the guise of finding out what happened to the boy, Arlyck exhaustively documents his own life, the two bios jostling for prominence. As fascinating as it is frustrating, docu raises a raft of nicely unresolved questions about parenting and parentage and could coast into limited urban theatrical release before moving onto cable.
Arlyck fills in the details surrounding his original black-and-white short, about half of which is glimpsed in interpolated fragments. As the little boy speaks of his experiences, an organic, unforced sense of the ’60s begins to emerge: The boy offhandedly admits to having smoked pot but is vehement about his dislike of the speed freaks who entered and exited his parents’ neighborhood crash pad and of the cops who customarily beat up on them.
Arlyck’s subjective, ambivalent voiceover about the period structures the footage with an everyday casualness that contrasts favorably with the symbolically-charged montages that usually pass for recaps of the ’60s.
The short “Sean” once aroused a mighty media firestorm, held up by the establishment as proof of the dire consequences of the hippie lifestyle and by the counterculture as showing a shining hope for the future. Arlyck establishes himself as a never-quite-committed dilettante observer, whose role as filmmaker allows him to straddle both worlds.
Arlyck’s journey leads him to three generations of Sean’s family. Sean’s father Johnny, true to his flower-child beliefs, lives off the land in Northern California. Sean’s grandparents were famous labor organizers and communists (archival footage of Sean’s grandfather getting grilled at House Un-American Activities Committee constitutes one of pic’s high points). At the center is Sean, now married with kids of his own and working as an electrician and saving for law school.
Arlyck muses about similarities with his own East Coast heritage. Arlyck’s parents were “fairweather communists” — Jewish intellectuals who flirted with leftist involvement. Ironically, Arlyck’s parents wind up on a rural commune, an assisted-living senior community in upstate New York, while Sean’s grandmother uses the settlement from a lawsuit to set up a hot tub in the belief that “nothing is too good for the working class.”
Polished HD transfer plusses variegated, multi-sourced footage.