It’s hard to imagine a more heartfelt eulogy than “Love, Antosha,” the emotional new documentary from first-time director Garret Price, about the life and the tragic, sudden, almost unbelievable death of actor Anton Yelchin.
Born Anton Viktorovich Yelchin to immigrant ice-skating superstars from the U.S.S.R., the young actor co-starred in 69 movies and television shows before he was crushed by his own car in a bizarre accident when he was only 27. Mainstream audiences probably knew him best as Anton Chekov, the rookie crew member aboard J.J. Abrams’ rebooted “Star Trek” movie franchise. But since 2000, Yelchin had been working as a child actor in high profile projects like “ER” and “Hearts in Atlantis,” before eventually graduating to mature leading roles in celebrated films like “Like Crazy” and “Green Room.”
As a child star, and an enterprising youngster who made experimental films with his friends and family, there’s no shortage of footage featuring Yelchin at nearly every stage of his life. Price’s film begins with a very young Yelchin making a movie in his bedroom, stumbling over himself as he tries to credit his father as the cinematographer. He was, right from the start, a total charmer.
In fact, almost all of “Love, Antosha” is a sincere and glowing love note to Yelchin, with childhood friends marveling over his precociousness, parents barely containing their overpowering affection, and peers of all ages who could barely believe how vibrant their co-star was. Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence each credit Yelchin with inspiring them to better themselves and their craft. The iconic Martin Landau, in an interview recorded shortly before his passing, says he thought of Yelchin as a contemporary.
Meanwhile, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Simon Pegg seemed to like just hanging out with the guy, and were fascinated by his interest in photography and Los Angeles’ underground kink scene. It’s a segment of Yelchin’s life that “Love, Antosha” perhaps too tastefully dances around, an illustration of an otherwise angelic figure’s apparently healthy, but undeniably outsider sensibilities. When he wasn’t playing Clumsy Smurf in family films, he was navigating sex clubs in Van Nuys and taking surreal nude photos of the clientele.
That’s one of the most interesting revelations that Price’s film uncovers, but hardly the most overwhelming. Yelchin, we learn (and probably for the first time), was diagnosed at a very early age with cystic fibrosis, and struggled with his health throughout his entire career. He truly was an excellent actor; many of his friends and co-workers and fans had no idea. And throughout the many video interviews Yelchin gave throughout his career, which permeate Price’s documentary, the actor can be heard coughing just a little more often than his co-stars.
The seemingly idyllic life of a preternaturally talented actor becomes, after this revelation (and also thanks to Price’s carefully curated library of clips and interviews), a bracing and affirming biography of an actor who — even if he had survived that fateful, awful accident — might not have been long for this world. Yelchin was fighting to fill every waking moment with art, making it and absorbing it, and his many journal entries (narrated by Nicolas Cage, giving one of his best performances in many years) reveal great insight and emotional depth.
The title, “Love, Antosha” refers to the plethora of notes he wrote to his mother, telling her how much he loved her and appreciated her sacrifices. Price’s film plays like just such a note, sent directly to Yelchin, wherever he is now. He was beloved and respected, and he lived an enormous life in just a few short decades. To call the film “fawning” would be accurate but it would hardly be a critique. That’s the whole point.
The documentary is earnest and tender and appreciative. If you knew Yechiun, or even if you just knew his films, it’s a sad and sweet catalog of his brief, inspirational life. If you didn’t know him, you’ll eventually feel like you did, and you’ll cry the kindest tears by the end, as you realize just how much he meant to the people who were in his orbit all along.