REVIEW: Love, Antosha (Sundance 2019)
If a more beautiful, heart-shattering film is released this year, I will be surprised.. The second a five year old Anton Yelchin appears on screen, the tears start and they won’t stop for a long time after the credits roll. This film is about more than just an actor. It is an immigration story. Two Russians coming to America to give their baby a chance of a better life. Finding out, while he was still a young child that he had cystic fibrosis. Encouraging him in his new passions of film and guitar-playing. Taking him to auditions. Checking in, while he was on set, to see if he was doing his breathing exercises. And getting ready to continue supporting him as he transitioned from actor to director, a life-long ambition. Just to have everything cruelly snatched away when their baby boy was just 27 years old by a horrible twist of fate. To be a parent watching this film is to go through every conceivable emotion and to feel completely wrung out and utterly drained by the end.
One of the skilful aspects of Garret Price’s direction is that he makes it seem as if it is Yelchin who is telling his own story. The ingenious use of Yelchin’s emails (to his parents) and hand-written journal entries are typed or written out before you, giving an immediacy and urgency to the story-telling. Yelchin’s words are read in voice-over by Nicolas Cage which is exactly the kind of bizarre twist that Yechin himself would find hilarious and cool, I have no doubt. The fast-paced editing ensures that this film is full of energy and life, it is not maudlin and does not dwell on death.
Anton Yelchin was a creative and imaginative child. He started attending improvisational acting classes at a young age, growing up in the valley. He made countless home videos – taping himself acting, dancing, singing – but also directing and making movies. Early influences were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Space Jam, then at around the age of 10, when his parents realised he was serious about film, he started watching classic cinema. He began with Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (the last of which would remain a huge influence on him). He then branched out into world cinema; including films from Romania and Thailand. He made copious notes on the films he watched and kept journals. When he started working on movies, he made extremely detailed notes – covering every page of his scripts. One can only hope that a book of Yelchin’s journals, script-notes and photography is published as a result of this documentary. When it came time to act drunk on screen, Yelchin had never been drunk before so drank shots of tequila and filmed himself so he could study the effects. In early roles he worked with Robin Williams, Albert Finney, Martin Landau – he absorbed everything and learned from the greats. Even more so than being mentored by experienced actors, he was interested in what the director and cinematographer were doing. He would come to set even when he didn’t need to, he would watch and learn.
As a teenager and in his early 20s, whilst making the move to big budget fare such as Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation, Anton Yelchin pursued his interests outside of acting. This included being in a band with his childhood friends, playing the Viper Room at weekends. Also he was a talented photographer – he met people through CraigsList who he would chronicle in the seedy back alleys of Van Nuys – he was known as a lurker and he would sometimes photograph people without their knowledge. He also staged photographs featuring dominatrixes and drag queens. Chris Pine tells the story that on the set of Star Trek, Yelchin was translating and analysing a Russian philosophical text. The Star Trek team in particular come across as a real family. His co-stars watched Yelchin grow and change and they became incredibly close. The ‘talking heads’ are starry in this documentary, but the way they speak about Yelchin with such humour and obvious love is unbelievably touching.
The strongest through-line throughout this documentary is Yelchin’s parents. His notes, emails and text messages to them are filled with love, respect and gratitude for what they did for him. Yelchin worked relentlessly, making 69 movies before his death. Despite his condition, he never missed a day of filming – a work ethic instilled in him by his immigrant parents, no doubt. He would awake one or two hours before call times to start his breathing exercises so he would have the stamina to make it through the long shooting days. The most striking and surprising element to come out of this film is Yelchin’s enormous creative life and intelligence outside of just acting (which he had a natural aptitude for). There is no doubt that he would have gone on to write, direct and make movies and art beyond just acting in films. Due to having CF, Yelchin was aware of his own mortality and lived life to the full. He didn’t want to miss out on any experiences which is why he said yes to so many projects. He ended up dying in a horrific way, but the documentary doesn’t dwell on that, it focuses instead on the full life Yelchin led before the tragic accident.
Love, Antosha is comparable to not only one of the best documentaries of last year, but one of the best films of last year – McQueen. Many people will be scared to watch it (as I was) due to how devastating they know it will be. Unlike most films which destroy you, this one will be hugely re-watchable. Because yes, it is incredibly upsetting, but it is also truly inspiring, invigorating and life-affirming. It will makes you want to ‘seize the day’ and live life to the full, consuming as much art as you can and putting as much creative energy out into the world as you can. A beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul.