“Anton’s Right Here,” the helming debut of Russian film critic Lyubov Arkus, is the sort of devastatingly moving docu that makes auds want to give everyone involved in it a bear hug after the credits roll, or at least donate to an appropriate charity. Painfully sad and ultimately uplifting, it follows autistic teenager Anton Kharitonov through a variety of traumas and institutions, encompassing not just his parents, caregivers and friends, but also the helmer and her crew, justifiably embedded in the story via their efforts to help. Pic will find loving homes at further fests, and merits niche distribution.
The docu was shot over six years, and shows a commitment to its subject that imbues every frame of the film. The story begins in 2008, when Arkus first comes across a remarkable, percussive, poetic essay Kharitonov wrote, quoted in its entirety at the end, called “People.” (Sample lines: “People can be seated, standing up, hot, warm, cold, real, metallic. … People are finite. People fly.”) But when Arkus first encounters Kharitonov, about 14 years old at the time, it’s hard to believe this frenetic, always-in-motion kid with exquisite, darting blue eyes, a self-harmer who barely speaks let alone writes, could have produced such a work.
Through sheer dogged determination, Arkus and her patient lenser, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev start to win Kharitonov’s trust, even his love. They get directly involved in his life, trying to find somewhere for him to stay while his long-suffering single mother, Renate, hopelessly battles advanced-stage cancer. Kharitonov starts talking and writing again (indeed, he likes to cover his walls with words) in a rural facility run on a shoestring budget where people with autism learn life and social skills. He blossoms, through his friendship with David, a caregiver who instinctively understands him.
Unfortunately, when David moves on, Kharitonov’s behavior becomes unmanageable for the community. He ends up in an understaffed and overcrowded psychiatric ward where he’s drugged to keep him under control, and gets no appropriate care in a Russian mental-health system that doesn’t officially recognize autism as a medical condition.
Meanwhile, Renate’s own health worsens, and the future looks decidedly bleak for all until the filmmakers manage to find support from an unexpected corner. It may seem hyperbolic to say so, and it’s perfectly possible that the material has been tweaked in the editing room to maximize emotional impact, but Arkus makes a strong case for this being one instance where filmmaking actually saves someone’s life.
In fact, more than one person at least seems to be “saved” in the process — the helmer, who, with revealing frankness, shares her own family history to illuminate why she feels such a deep affinity with Kharitonov. Indeed, the pic explores with rigorous honesty the complex feelings of guilt and helplessness experienced by those close to people on the autistic spectrum, much more so than many other docus about the condition that too often aim to exalt exceptional individuals. Ultimately, “Anton’s Right Here” embraces much more than the story of a boy with autism and his circle. Lyubov, the helmer’s first name, and a fairly common one in Russia, means “love,” and that’s what this film is all about.
In terms of technique, the pic largely impresses, although it’s a shame Khamidkhodzhaev didn’t have a better camera rig, especially in the early days of shooting. That said, the grainy look and the out-of-focus visuals retained by editor Georgiy Ermolenko may ultimately enhance the pic’s in-the-moment authenticity. Graceful, collage-like cutting helps build moving portraits of the people involved, and the use of string-laden pieces by avant-garde contempo composer Max Richter enhances the rapturous atmosphere.
In the interests of full disclosure, this reviewer has a child on the autistic spectrum, which probably made the film even more of an emotional experience personally, but even those with only a passing awareness of the condition are likely to find “Anton” an amazing experience.