Okay, so a documentary about the Haight Ashbury Summer of Love (and its subsequent downward spiral) is pretty low on the list of things the world of documentary filmmaking needs now. But while Following Sean finds its starting point directly in the midst of this very time and place, the breadth of the film's scope and perspective separates it from the usual grainy collages of woozy park concerts and ostrich-feathered, face-painted loons.
Essentially a film about a film, Following Sean revisits the original Sean—a 1969 film that director Ralph Arlyck made during his brief residence on Cole Street at Haight, across the street from the house where Charles Manson kept a basement apartment, and with the famous hippie renaissance in full swing around him. A film student at San Francisco State University, Arlyck took footage of Sean, a four-year-old boy who lived upstairs from him in a quintessential hippie pad, with tweakers and other freaks drifting in and out as Sean romped through the streets in bare feet. The film went on to garner a great deal of attention because of an interview Arlyck conducted with Sean, wherein the tot speaks casually about his marijuana use, makes anti-cop statements, and expresses a dislike for speed addicts.
Following Sean revisits the footage, the scene, and the subject 30-some years later, as well as turning the camera on Arlyck's own story over the years. What results is far more interesting than a narrow view of the era itself: a sociological study of families and generations that span the American coasts, and that contain both the averages and extremes of cultural politics and lifestyles. From Arlyck's documentation of his marriage to a French filmmaker, his return to the East Coast and his reformed communist parents, to his examination of Sean's grandparents', parents', and siblings' place in history, a complex, revealing microcosm of the American 20th century plays out. Following Sean isn't hokey or preachy, nor is it ingrained with privileged nostalgia—rather, it's a thoughtful, and very truthful, look at family, history, and the intersections that bind them.