Love, Antosha

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Love, Antosha
"The inevitable sadness is balanced by so much joy and energy that it's a delight to watch." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

No matter how practised one becomes at writing obituaries, some of them are so sad that it's hard to think straight. The obituary I wrote for Anton Yelchin in June 2006 was the toughest of my career. How does one attempt to sum up, in just a few brief paragraphs, the worth of such a remarkable talent snatched away at just 27 years of age? With that in mind, I approached this documentary with some trepidation. It seemed a necessary piece of work, but one likely to be laden with sadness. As it turns out, however, the inevitable sadness is balanced by so much joy and energy that it's a delight to watch.

"This is a film by Anton Yelchin!" announces a beaming nine-year-old version of the star in the opening scene, borrowed from one of the many movies he made with his parents' video camera. We get to see more highlights of these as the documentary goes on - everything from a 12-year-old's self-conscious attempts at art to adventures with a best friend. They're supported by family footage of important shared moments and special occasions, plus interviews with friends, family members and fellow stars. There are relatively few clips from the films he appeared in, which made up only a part of his creative output, but we do get some great behind the scenes footage, and there's also footage of him playing with his band, the Hammerheads. The soundtrack to this film is all this own work.

What emerges is the most comprehensive and fascinating documentary portrait of a star since 2015's Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck. Anton may only have lived for 27 years but he did a huge amount with them. The childhood activities captured here are not just filler before the film gets going but intriguing in their own right, partly because this part of the film also deals with his parents' flight from Russia and adjustment to life in the West. That they managed to give their son such a rich life whilst dealing with this is impressive in itself, and they're both fascinating people. His mother Irina is a central figure, going through drawers in her home to produce dozens of notes and drawings he sent her telling her how much he loved her - each signed love, Antosha and decorated with a curly-haired, smiling face. We also hear a song he wrote for her. At no stage is there any suggestion that he felt embarrassed by their closeness, and actors later remark that the astounding thing about him was how comfortable he was with himself.

Also significant at this stage in the star's life was the discovery that he had cystic fibrosis. The film deals with this at some length and looks at what it took for him to look after his health as well as living such a busy life - as well as his parents' constant fear that he would die young because of it. It's rare to see chronic illness reflected on in cinema this way, as a critical part of life but not the whole of it, and, again, the family's extensive records mean that we hear some of his own thoughts on the matter. It was kept strictly secret at the time and some co-stars say they only now understand quite how much effort he was making to be as present and engaged as he always was on set.

The film looks briefly at Anton's one serious relationship and spends a bit more time on his numerous casual encounters with women, often as described by envious but amused friends. It also hints at the darker and more complex side of his sexual adventures, his love of spending time with people who lived their lives on the margins and the passion for photography that emerged in part from this, as he tried to capture aspects of life rarely glimpsed in the galleries of LA. This work is impressive too - there really seems to be nothing he couldn't do, the tragedy being simply that he didn't get the time to do more.

With entertaining, affectionate and sometimes poignant contributions from the likes of Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Bryce Dallas Howard, John Cho, Jennifer Lawrence and JJ Abrams, and with impressive tributes from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Frank Langella and Martin Landau, all of whom seem to have considered Anton their equal, this is the kind of remembrance most actors could only dream of. It's also tremendous fun to watch. All of that warmth and brilliance shines out of it, and thorough as director Garret Price is, he doesn't succeed in finding much to criticise. It's too full, too mischievous and too complicated to feel hagiographic; it has the messiness of any creative space, like the rooms its subject vacated. It's just bursting with life.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2019
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A portrait of the life and career of actor Anton Yelchin.

Festivals:

Sundance 2019

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