The actor Anton Yelchin, best known for his part as Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek movie franchise, lived with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disorder that marked him with a death sentence. When he was a child, the average life expectancy for someone with CF had reached the early twenties, now it’s getting up to the forties. Unfortunately, Yelchin couldn’t prove the latest statistical data true because he was killed at age 27 in a freak accident involving his own SUV in the summer of 2016, just before the release of Star Trek Beyond.
Yelchin having CF was not public knowledge until the following year, when a foundation was established in his name to support other artists with the disorder. The secrecy was likely to maintain his employability, though close friends in the industry were clearly aware of his condition. For instance, in the documentary Love, Antosha, Yelchin’s Star Trek co-star Chris Pine seems to have known. For the rest of us, the doc might be the first we hear about the challenge Yelchin faced as a child and a young man, especially as a performer who began working regularly as a preteen. To keep up his health and career, he had to carry out breathing exercises among other treatments before his early call times on set.
Love, Antosha portrays Yelchin as a guy who mostly took care of himself in order to live life to the fullest, someone who loved life, other people, and particularly his parents, both defected Soviet figure skaters, with a special bond reserved for his mother, Irina Korina. The title refers to the salutations of his many cards and letters addressed to her. He had time to write and/or talk to her almost daily, even while prolifically appearing in 69 film and TV projects over the course of 16 years (many released posthumously), plus teaching himself guitar and then playing in a band (the Hammerheads), enjoying a considerable hobby in artistic photography under an alter ego, watching classic movies and writing constantly in a film studies diary, and personally translating thick Russian philosophy texts in his spare time.
The title is also relevant to the sort of biographical film that Love, Antosha is. Hardly a mere celebratory profile with a string of talking heads uttering boring obligatory praises, the many peers and friends interviewed for the documentary seem to have genuinely loved and, more importantly, been loved by Yelchin. It’s a look at his life and work that’s not just a love letter to him but also a love letter from him. Everyone on screen has a unique anecdote or observation to share, from Kristen Stewart discussing how he was her first love and he broke her heart, Jennifer Lawrence on the acting tips she acquired from him while making The Beaver, Simon Pegg describing him as a “dirty bird,” Martin Landau considering him an “old soul” and a contemporary of his, Willem Dafoe‘s kinship over their conflicted concern about physical appearance, and numerous others who truly adored, respected, admired, learned from, and now terribly miss him.
And while movie fans in general, regardless of their appreciation of Yelchin going into the film, will delight with the plethora of famous faces who seem to have jumped at the chance to take part, the most wonderful moments of Love, Antosha are when his mother and father, Viktor Yelchin, are on screen. At times, their dual sit-down appearances are the most heartbreaking parental interviews since Dear Zachary, other times they’re absolutely heartwarming as Irina dominates the conversations about her boy — Viktor remains silent for the most part until the very end, when his words have a built-up power to them. You’ll want to give the two of them a hug. Really, you’ll want to give the whole documentary a hug.
Love, Antosha is the directorial debut of editor Garret Price, who cut the biographical doc Janis: Little Girl Blue and last year’s popular Star Wars extra The Director and the Jedi, and it’s produced by filmmaker Drake Doremus, who directed Yelchin in Like Crazy and is also another talking head who was both a collaborator and a friend of the doc’s subject. Given where it’s coming from, you’d expect this to be all biased hagiography, but while there’s not really any negative statements made about Yelchin, it’s a step above the standard film about a late artist. For its care and tenderness, I place it on a shelf with such recent biographical docs as Life Itself, Amy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and The Internet’s Own Boy.
I’ll admit that I was looking forward to Love, Antosha as a longtime fan of Yelchin as an actor. But his death especially affected me for what an out-of-nowhere shock it was (accidents are my biggest fear), despite the fact that I neither knew him nor knew much about him outside his impressionable on-screen talent. To become so familiar with him with this beautiful documentary portrait, through old clips of him making his own amateur films as a little boy and through Irina’s doting stories and the affectionate testimonials of his many friends and oddly through his diaries and letters read in voiceover by Nicolas Cage of all people, by the film’s end, I became affected by his death anew, and more substantially. Yeah, I cried. A lot.
Love, Antosha is filled with posthumous revelations about Yelchin, including his CF diagnosis and his fetish photography, neither of which is necessarily news by way of the doc itself but hasn’t been well-known to the extent we see in the film. Price also has perfectly compiled a vivid sense of his subject, a profound picture of a profound human being whose departure no one can deny is a tremendous loss, to cinema and to all the people he touched directly or with his art. I am certain that I won’t ever stop thinking about him or this doc.