When 27-year-old Anton Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in 2016, the outpouring of grief from the film community was overwhelming and immediate. But for those of us who only knew him onscreen, it was difficult to immediately assess his career. Unlike Heath Ledger, another star of a slightly older generation who died a shockingly young death, Yelchin was a respected and successful actor who nonetheless had yet to find his “Brokeback Mountain” or his “Dark Knight” – a role that could easily define him and clearly demarcate the potential that had been lost. In his short career, he’d made his name as a precocious and prolific child actor, established indie darling cred in “Like Crazy” and “Green Room,” and left his mark on multi-generational franchises like “Star Trek” and “Terminator Salvation.” But who was Anton Yelchin, and what might he have become?
Directed by Garret Price with substantial assistance from Yelchin’s former costars, his friends, and (especially) his parents, “Love, Antosha” helps fill in those blanks, painting a touching and surprising portrait of an actor who had much more going on in his life – from a serious illness to some seriously left-field artistic inclinations – than was mentioned in his obituaries. The Yelchin we see here was a devoted son, an almost fanatically committed actor (he amassed a remarkable 69 acting credits), a blues guitarist, a photographer of lurid fetish clubs, and an intellectually adventurous budding artist who could well have added several more entries to that resume.
Proceeding through the actor’s life in chronological order, the film is stocked with plentiful home videos and excerpts from his emails and diaries (read by Nicolas Cage) which show a deeply curious cinephile who made copious notes about classic films and his own technique. Born to Irina and Viktor Yelchin – a pair of figure skaters who fled the Soviet Union for the San Fernando Valley as refugees shortly after Anton was born – Yelchin seemed destined for showbusiness from the start, and the film begins with video footage of him as a pre-schooler, excitedly announcing the credits for his own homemade film. (Initially speaking in English, he switches to Russian to ask his camera-wielding dad the English word for “cinematographer” – how many four-year-olds even know that word in one language?) His parents encouraged his interest in acting, and he started to accrue small parts as an adolescent, attracting attention when he costarred opposite Anthony Hopkins in “Hearts in Atlantis.”
Irina dominates the first third of the film, and Yelchin’s intense attachment to his mother emerges as the documentary’s most heartbreaking throughline – its title is taken from the way he signed the hundreds of notes and emails he sent her throughout his life. We are, obviously, getting a mother’s-eye view of Yelchin here, but the film allows for interesting glimpses of the strangeness of stage-parenthood, most notably when Irina describes the experience of watching her young son learn how to cry on command for an early part in “ER”; she found it understandably unnerving, but he found it thrilling.
So much of the craft of acting is invisible, and this film offers some fascinatingly specific examples of Yelchin’s process, from his struggle to teach himself how to “speak Russian badly” as Chekov in “Star Trek,” to the research footage he shot of himself as a teenager taking his first shots of liquor and clinically describing the effects in order to prepare for a drunk scene in “Alpha Dog.” Yelchin’s commitment is all the more impressive considering the revelation, made after his death, that he suffered from cystic fibrosis. Diagnosed as a child, he was sufficiently worried about the disease affecting his casting opportunities that he opted to keep it secret, and his friends note that Anton would regularly wake up early enough to perform hours-long breathing treatments before early morning call-times.
Few of his costars were aware of his struggles, though dozens of them show up here to sing his praises – everyone from Martin Landau and Jodie Foster to Jennifer Lawrence and virtually the entire cast and crew of the “Star Trek” franchise – and their remembrances are often intimate and insightful. Kristen Stewart describes how he “kinda broke my heart” when the two were teenagers. Simon Pegg warmly labels him “a little dirt bird” for his nocturnal photo shoots at Van Nuys sex clubs. And Willem Dafoe recalls commiserating with Yelchin over his anxieties about losing his hair, which, in a profession that strives to project eternal youth, was more than a matter of simple vanity.
Indeed, Yelchin was at something of a career crossroads at the time of his death. Always conscious of his own mortality – the average life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis is roughly half that of a healthy person – and increasingly uncomfortable with the “rising star” tag that had stuck to him for a bit too long, he seemed to be edging away from blockbusters and more toward the esoteric, taking roles in low-budget short films and indies, as well as writing a script called “Travis” that he hoped to direct. Where his third act would have taken him is anyone’s guess, but that’s the most bittersweet takeaway of the film: It could have been just about anywhere.