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Following Sean

(2006) *** Pg-13
91 min. Shadow Distribution. Director: Ralph Arlyck.

Ralph Arlyck's Following Sean is a documentary that serves as an essay on American sociopolitical development and as a family album. In his youth, Arlyck went to California on an "emotional Gold Rush." In San Francisco's Haight circa 1969, he featured in a student film a humorously laissez-faire six-year-old neighbor boy named Sean. That film launched Arlyck's career, bringing him to the attention of the French art crowd (including Truffaut) and paving the way for a documentary career. Almost thirty years later, Arlyck picks up his camera and goes in search of the adult Sean.

The resulting film considers the unexpected developments of life, personality, and the effect of time on ideals. Arlyck revisits the cultural assumptions about Sean (would the hippie kid, assumed by many to be damaged by his free-living parents, grow up to be a drug casualty or a sell-out?), but the director also examines his own family history, a trail from East Coast liberalism. As always with personally invasive documentaries, Following Sean implicitly suggests that Arlyck and his family and friends would all be better off if he would just drop the camera, but the filmmaker is unusually, refreshingly honest about his intent and his own failings.

"We're on a path without knowing we're on it," Arlyck reflects. Drawing on nostalgic film footage and home movies compellingly assembled by editor Malcolm Pullinger, Arlyck creates a suitable tension between the glow of nostalgia (will the feeling survive in the age of digital home movies?) and harder truths. Without belaboring his narrative shaping, Arlyck asks big questions about life paths and philosophical drift. Most importantly, Sean remains a compelling and precocious character trapped in celluloid amber, both as a child and as an adult.

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