'Love, Antosha': Film Review | Sundance 2019

A rich reminiscence of a gifted actor who died far too young.

Actor Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak accident in 2016, is remembered by many of his colleagues — including Chris Pine, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence and director J.J. Abrams — in this comprehensive documentary.

The freak accident that killed Anton Yelchin in June 2016 still haunts many fans of the young actor; his death remains one of the saddest Hollywood losses of recent years. Now Garret Price has made an emotionally stirring and very effective documentary about Yelchin's life, Love, Antosha, which has its world premiere at Sundance. The setting is apt, since a couple of Yelchin's earlier films were shown at the fest, including the award-winning Like Crazy and the crime drama Alpha Dog. I interviewed Yelchin during promotional activities for Alpha Dog at the festival in 2007, and found him to be thoughtful, articulate and full of enthusiasm for what promised to be a fruitful acting career.

There is an irony in that the character he played in that film was a young teenager killed way before his time, in a gang war gone wrong. But Yelchin embodied a remarkable variety of characters over the course of his career, with roles in disturbing dramas, romances and experimental indie efforts and even on the TV comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. In fact, an end title reports that he appeared in 69 films and TV shows before his death at the age of 27, more credits than some actors accumulate over the course of a 50-year career.

He started early, as a child actor in film and television. But in a way, he started even earlier, as this doc demonstrates through home movies of Anton as a young child, clowning and seizing the camera. His parents, Irina and Viktor Yelchin, were successful ice dancers in the Soviet Union, and they emigrated to the U.S. in order to give their infant son, Anton, a better life. He had a drive to perform, which he demonstrated at an early age, and his parents encouraged that desire.

One reason they indulged him was that they learned early on that Anton suffered from cystic fibrosis. They initially kept that diagnosis from him, and he showed no symptoms when he was a child, but they clearly felt they did not want to deny him what he desired to do. His love of performing and his curiosity about all aspects of cinema brought him success at an early age. He co-starred with Anthony Hopkins in Scott Hicks' Hearts in Atlantis, and he appeared with Robin Williams in a drama directed by David Duchovny, House of D.

This doc includes excerpts from those two movies and many others, including probably his biggest hit, playing Chekov (apt given his Russian heritage) in J.J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek. An amazing number of collaborators on these films gave interviews to the director and testify to Yelchin's intelligence and energy. They include Abrams and Star Trek co-stars Chris Pine, Simon Pegg and Zachary Quinto, as well as Ben Foster, Kristen Stewart, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Lawrence and Jodie Foster, who directed him in the ill-fated Mel Gibson flick The Beaver. Other helmers, including Like Crazy's Drake Doremus (who also served as producer of this film) and Charlie Bartlett's Jon Poll, pay tribute to Yelchin's intensity as a performer.

When he was older, Yelchin's parents told him that he had cystic fibrosis, and he began to have some health problems that he kept secret from most of his co-workers. It is an irony that his lung problems may have contributed to one of his most distinctive qualities as an actor — his husky, gravelly voice. Perhaps he was so determined to work as much as he did because he sensed that he might not have a long life. (An onscreen note tells us that the average life expectancy of someone with cystic fibrosis is just 37 years.) Besides his acting, he was a gifted writer, aspiring director, musician and photographer. (Some of his writings are read in voiceover by another of Yelchin's co-stars, Nicolas Cage.)

The film is not an idealized portrait. It acknowledges Yelchin's curiosity in visiting and photographing steamy sex clubs, but somehow these slightly unsavory elements only add to the rich portrait of a gifted, curious, complicated man with a life full of promise. The title comes from Yelchin's signature in letters that he wrote to his mother throughout his life. He frequently expressed his gratitude to his parents for the sacrifices they made in order to give him more opportunities. An end title tells us that they visit his grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery every day. Viewers of this fine movie can take some satisfaction in knowing that, at least onscreen, Anton lives forever.

Production company: Lurker Films
Director-editor: Garret Price

Producers: Adam Gibbs, Drake Doremus
Cinematographer: Radan Popovic
Music: Saul Simon MacWilliams
Original songs: Anton Yelchin and The Hammerheads
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

96 minutes