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'Love, Antosha': A Cinematic Love Letter To An Actor's Brief Life

<em>Love Antosha </em>is a documentary portrait of the brief life and career of actor Anton Yelchin, as told by his parents and director Garret Price.
mTuckman Media
Love Antosha is a documentary portrait of the brief life and career of actor Anton Yelchin, as told by his parents and director Garret Price.

When actor Anton Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in 2016, his body pinned between his Jeep SUV and the gate to his house, few knew how to respond to the tragedy. His death seemed so sudden, so random, so utterly strange it was simply hard to believe. Yelchin had several film projects in development and in production. Already, at 27, he had fitted himself as a well-greased cog into the Hollywood machine. He was about to start directing his first feature film. Tributes began to pour out, from his friends, his co-stars, his directors.

Now, there's a documentary. Love, Antosha, directed by Garret Price and co-produced by Yelchin's Like Crazy director Drake Doremus, is an adoring ode to an actor whose roles spanned from summer blockbusters to tiny indies.

What shines in Love, Antosha is Yelchin the artist. The son of Russian figure skaters who immigrated to Los Angeles just after he was born, Yelchin grew up in a San Fernando Valley household that valued artistic pursuits. His father encouraged him to watch great films as a kid, and he got his hands on a video camera and started directing short films with his friends. That's what opens the film: home video of young Anton directing his father's amateur cinematographic efforts as the boy portrays the Phantom, a James Bond-esque character.

In fact, it's Yelchin's precocious artistry and creativity that make Love, Antosha such a satisfying portrait of the actor. The trove of tapes and interviews and photographs the actor's family and friends made available to the filmmakers create a powerful testimony. We're guided through his life by a couple of interviews he recorded on press junkets for some of his last films. Their recency, paired with his youth, create a wistful aura of surreality, a sense that Yelchin is still here with us, commenting on his own past as if it were simply the prologue to his bright future.

But it isn't. He's gone. And the documentary makes clear that we were lucky to even get him for 27 years. Yelchin was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that weakens the lungs and reduces the life expectancy of those it afflicts. This diagnosis, which was presented to Yelchin's family early in his life, and to us early in the film, turns him into a figure that, however promising his film career, was consigned to lead a life cut short. Yet no one suspected it would end how it did.

What follows this revelation in the film is a rather by-the-books biography, a tick-tock of roles and social and artistic developments. We see his start as a child actor, his movement into more mature roles, his breaking into big-budget studio films like the Star Trek franchise and Terminator Salvation, and his rewarding career in smaller films. We see how he grows into an adult, with his boyish face. His receding hairline and wiry hair may have cut him out of leading man roles, but it made him more interesting, more human.

The full participation of family, friends, directors and co-stars, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Martin Landau, Chris Pine and many others, makes for a remembrance infused with deeply personal history. They share stories with frank detail — he was, we learn, intimidating in his love of literature, of foreign films, of music (on the side, Yelchin also occasionally played guitar and sang in a band called The Hammerheads). He seemed to know everything, and was voracious in his consumption of the world of culture around him, wise beyond his years.

The film's emotional gravity, its key relationship, exists between Anton and his mother, Irina. "Dear Mamoola," he writes in letter after letter, email after email, all narrated by Yelchin's Dying of the Light co-star Nicolas Cage. He confesses his loneliness filming abroad, his failure to take care of his health. In his youth, he adorable letters by hand when she's sick and slips them under her door. She reads them, after his death, and cries. How could you not?

That's what makes Love, Antosha feel special. It's a film made with as much love for its subject as the subject harbored for his friends and family. It's a film that cares, even if it avoids examining some of the less-than-simple details about him. Those details — that he would lurk with his associates in an impromptu photography collective around the seedier corners of Los Angeles and frequently photograph sex clubs, or that he was experimenting with drugs off the set of Star Trek Beyond — are given a light sheen, a seal of bewildered approval by his colleagues as mere quirks. "Do you knowwhat Anton did this weekend," director J.J. Abrams recalls Chris Pine asking. "For Chris Pine to be freaked out about what Anton did means it was out there."

But there is an elision that makes the film better, and that's the lack of emphasis on his death. It's almost a coda, and afterthought, even though its specter looms over the film. Martin Landau says of Yelchin's death that the human race has been cheated, that he hopes the actor is never forgotten. Love, Antosha will help ensure he never is.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.