Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: ‘Following Sean’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday July 27, 2007

In 1969, Ralph Arlyck made a student film called Sean about his 4-year-old neighbor in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Sean was the son of hippie parents and in an interview with Arlyck he claimed to smoke and eat marijuana, earning the film a great deal of notoriety, including praise and damnation from politicians and dire predictions of Sean’s fate as an adult.  

Thirty years later, Arlyck returned to San Francisco to see what became of Sean and his family. However, the resulting feature, Following Sean, is much more than an update. The project ended up taking nearly a decade to complete, and the final product is something much more profound, Arlyck having transformed the experience into a stirring meditation on time and aging, on youth and dreams and ideals, on middle-age, old age, companionship and family.  

Despite the predictions, Sean is in fact a grounded, articulate and well-adjusted young man. And Arlyck has gone on to a successful career in film. But what makes Following Sean engaging is not so much the factual details of lives lived, but the context in which they’ve been lived, and the ways in which paths cross, diverge, reconnect and diverge again.  

The decision to draw parallels between Sean’s story and his own might at first seem self-indulgent, but Arlyck finds just the right tone, examining the social context in which their lives—and the lives of three generations of each man’s family—have unfolded. Sean’s grandparents were active Communists during the McCarthy era; his father was a hippie refugee from an upper-middle-class upbringing; and Arlyck’s East Coast Jewish background frequently clashes with attitudes and ideals he derived from his West Coast experience. Each man has both embraced and rebelled against his roots, and each has gained his share of wisdom, pride and regret from the experience. It’s a thoughtful film, a sort of cinematic poem, with images from the past juxtaposed with the present, revealing three decades worth of sadness and joy and love and pain. 

Following Sean airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 31 on KQED.