Dir. Ralph Arlyck. U.S.A.  2005.

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Sean Farrell grew up in a very unusual environment. He lived with his parents, Johnny and Susie, in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s, the center of what has come to be labeled as the “hippie” counterculture. In 1969, Sean, then four-years-old, was the subject of a fourteen-minute documentary directed by Ralph Arlyck, a film student at San Francisco State, who lived in the apartment below Sean's. The film, simply called Sean, shows a funny and very bright young boy talking spontaneously about things four-year-olds do not normally talk about: eating grass, speed freaks, turning on, and being “busted” by the “pigs.”

Although by the time of the interview, many of the original hippies had moved away from the area as the drug dealers and their hard drugs came in, enough “flower children” remained to provide Sean with an immersion into what the movement may have been like in its hey day, even though, by that time, it was reduced to beggars in the streets and users overdosing daily. The documentary played at Film Festivals and won praise from prominent filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut, but drew negative responses from Middle America and was shown in the White House as a warning about the dangerous path in which young people were headed.

Though the director lived in the area, he was more of an observer than a participant and did not hide his disdain for the lack of work ethic and family responsibility that he had seen in the neighborhood, a way of life contrary to the values he had been taught by his leftist East Coast parents. He admits that his favorite bumper sticker at the time read, "Hate cops? Next time you're in trouble trying calling a hippie.” Arlyck moved back to New York but decided to return to San Francisco thirty years later to search for Sean and find out what had happened to him and his family (who separated soon after the film was made) and whether he had “became a drug addict or a stockbroker” (as if they were the only two choices available).

The result is the follow-up documentary Following Sean, an 87-minute film that spans three generations and several decades, moving through the passage of time to reflect the realities of life -  love, children, marriage, family, for both Sean and his family and that of his own. Consisting of home movies, photo essays of life in the 60s (including “Be-Ins” and drugged-out hippies), and interviews, the film offers a compelling journey through the process of understanding the choices we make in life, their consequences, and the unexpected direction in which they often take us. Arlyck is non-judgmental, examining life as it is, not always as we want it to be, and the main theme of the film could be said to be the struggle to maintain a balance between freedom and responsibility.

Showing how his own growth paralleled the lives of Sean and his family also adds an element of depth to the film that otherwise may have been missing. Following Sean is an intelligent and often moving documentary that spends considerable time with the grown-up Sean (how he turned out is better left for the viewer to discover), but never gets close enough to its subject to probe any difficult questions such as what his experience growing up in the Haight was really like for him and how it affected his formative years. To its credit, the film provides a new generation with a look at the counterculture, one of the seminal events of the sixties, but fails to offer any perspective or explore what it was really about, beyond the fact that eighty people stayed in the upstairs apartment at various times.

What is not discussed is that beneath the outward “hippie” revolt against the establishment that often went to bizarre extremes and gave the media the excuse to call it a “freak show,” there was a profound longing to begin to shatter the spiritual and social straightjacket of the fifties with its empty materialistic values and to explore, through psychotropic drugs and other means, a larger vision of ourselves and the nature of reality beyond the limited perspective of our five senses. While the film pays lip service to anti-establishment ideas, it does not provide what it claims to be its primary purpose - an intimate examination of the legacy of the sixties and its counterculture as it affected one young man.



Howard Schumann

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