Of all the things we should have learned since the 1960s, the lesson most obvious in Ralph Arlyck's ''Following Sean" is this: Never attempt to upstage a 4 1/2-year-old hippie.
In 1969, Arlyck made a controversial 14-minute black-and-white short called ''Sean," which starred a precocious San Francisco boy who lived in the apartment above Arlyck's $50-a-month Haight-Ashbury flat. With his casual drug references and candid answers to Arlyck's prying interview questions, fidgety Sean Farrell became the poster child for everything that was good and bad about counterculture parenting. His experienced comments about pot smoking, speed freaks, and police brutality may no longer shock, but -- glimpsed in grainy clips that are the foundation of ''Following Sean" -- they still rivet.
The problem for Arlyck is that the rest of the story, including what has happened to both subject and filmmaker since we last heard from them, just doesn't have the same pull as those vintage snippets that so captivated America and famous fans like Francois Truffaut. If ''Sean" was about conviction and revolution, ''Following Sean" is about ambivalence and resignation. In either case it's pretty easy for a funny-provocative kid to stand out.
That said, Arlyck's new film is an honest and thoughtful examination of the people and events that most influenced his adult life and what the '60s really meant to the bigger picture, viewed with the benefit of hindsight.
The film begins with Arlyck reminiscing about how he first came to live in the Haight, and who and what he found there when he arrived from New York as a naive 26-year-old. Impressively, it's a look back that's not all stirring protest footage or one-sided narration; the heroes and fools come in all shapes and stripes here, sometimes with a single face.
Fast forward to 1994. The filmmaker, long back in New York, decides to try to reconnect with Farrell, still living in San Francisco. ''I'd been drawn out to California in a sort of emotional gold rush," Arlyck's narration explains; time to see how it all panned out.
Farrell is by now an easygoing electrician on the verge of becoming a husband and father. He looks a lot like the boy we knew, except flatter. He didn't change the world, as liberals hoped, or settle into coke addiction and welfare, as conservatives predicted. He's just an average grown-up with an average life.
Maybe that's why Arlyck spends as much time looking at himself as he does actually ''following" Sean. Admirable if not always that interesting, the director's personal journey includes taking stock of his own communist family roots, marriage, fatherhood, and career choices -- unemotionally and without arriving at any grand conclusions, which feels right. In the end we learn way more than we need to about this filmmaker, but not enough to change our minds significantly. It's still that 4 1/2-year-old boy who sticks with us.