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Films

Love and loss with Anton Yelchin

A still from the film Love, Antosha. Photo: courtesy of Sundance Institute

Love, Antosha is a forthright, detailed documentary about the short, incandescent life of actor Anton Yelchin, and it’s a heartbreaker. Directed by Garret Price, the movie uses copious footage, including interviews of Yelchin during his brief yet prolific career in film and television, clips of his performances, home video provided by his family, tributes from his colleagues, including Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Kristen Stewart, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, J. J. Abrams, Simon Pegg, and Martin Landau, and loving, sometimes painful, recollections and reflections from his parents and friends. Actor Nicolas Cage provides narration.

Over the course of Love, Antosha, Yelchin grows from an exuberant, imaginative child, son of successful Russian-Jewish ice dancers who immigrated to America to escape religious persecution and improve their lot, to a precocious pubescent, to the savvy, philosophical young man whose work in feature films included memorable parts in Alpha Dog and Green Room, among others, and a poignant star-making turn as the title character in the teen drama Charlie Bartlett. He’s probably best-known for playing Ensign Pavel Chekov in the recent reboot of the Star Trek movie series, although Yelchin’s acting career began when he was a kid and held his own opposite the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins and Larry David. (For the record, Yelchin played a precocious boy whose mastery of card tricks infuriates eternal grouch David in a typically hilarious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

Although few outside of his family were aware, Yelchin was accomplishing so much, including playing guitar and writing songs as part of a band named the Hammerheads, while battling cystic fibrosis since birth. Still, he didn’t miss a day of work due to the debilitating disease, and he would amass 68 acting credits before he died in a freak accident — not from the illness — on June 19, 2016 at the age of 27. He was just about to direct his first screenplay. All of that is addressed in Love, Antosha, as is the respect he earned from his peers, as well as the unflinching devotion he had for his mother and father, making his passing even more tragic.

A MEMORABLE MEETING

His death was stunning to me as someone who admired his filmography and considered how much more he could have brought the world. It may have hit me particularly hard, given that I had occasion to spend some time with Yelchin a few years earlier and was granted a glimpse of what sort of person he was away from the lens.

If you write about and review movies, chances are that you will occasionally meet people working in the medium. The experience can be polite business-as-usual, informative, and only occasionally testy, whether it’s someone from behind or in front of the camera. And every so often, it can be a genuinely friendly and uplifting experience. Back in 2011, I had the good fortune to hang out with two young actors on the rise: Yelchin and Felicity Jones, who were co-starring in Like Crazy, a touching and remarkably realistic love story about a couple whose trans-Atlantic romance faces challenges that seriously test the relationship.

The encounter with Yelchin and Jones was part of a promotional tour that included an opportunity for the performers to meet and chat about the movie with critics in an informal setting. Jones, who would go on to star in such high-profile movies as The Theory of Everything and Rogue One, was charming and gracious. As much fun as it was to speak with her, I was more delighted by my conversation with Yelchin, who was surprisingly generous with his time.

EULOGY AND CELEBRATION

Yelchin was completely devoid of pretension, despite displaying a sharp intellect and quick wit. We spoke about the collaborative process of making Like Crazy, then we veered off into a discussion of our favorite movies. His knowledge of cinema and his adoration of classic Hollywood and foreign fare were impressive. From there, we shifted to our preferences in music, cities, and Los Angeles night spots, floating plans to connect at the Varnish, a backroom bar in downtown Los Angeles when he was done with an upcoming location shoot. Although that never happened, it was the thought and intent on Yelchin’s part that mattered.

In Love, Antosha, we see Yelchin struggle with the consequences of his cystic fibrosis diagnosis and refuse to give in to what the medical professionals say will be an inevitable fate. He never sways from his artistic pursuits, including an exploration of photography with dark, occasionally bizarre, and always compelling results. Love, Antosha may be sad, because it mourns the loss of a very talented and dedicated artist whose burgeoning career was cruelly curtailed, but ultimately it’s uplifting and inspiring, because it celebrates his creativity and determination. As eulogies go, Love, Antosha does its subject justice while it honors him.

Love, Antosha opens at the Opera Plaza Cinema (415-771-0183, landmarktheatres.com) on Aug. 16.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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