In the punk rock thriller Green Room, there is a point where the film transcends its genre trappings into something more grim and serious. A group of terrified kids barricade themselves in a room, except one of them has part of his arm on the other side of the door. The kid starts screaming—something terrible is happening to his arm—and you can tell by the look on his face that there’s no going back.
Because the kid was played by Anton Yelchin, it leaves an impression. It’s one of many great performances from the actor, who died from a freak accident at age 27, and the documentary Love, Antosha explores his life. It is not just a biography or a highlight reel of his work, but an intriguing look at how a blossoming, devoted talent influenced others.
Yelchin’s parents nurtured his creativity. Director Garret Price offers a brief prologue, where we learn that they were figure skaters in the Soviet Union who escaped the Iron Curtain. Yelchin started making home movies at a young age, and took up the guitar. You can see glimmers of the actor he would become, yet Price focuses more on his relationship with his mother.
The biggest surprise in Love, Antosha is that Yelchin lived with cystic fibrosis, a genetic, life-threatening disorder that creates chronic lung problems. He didn’t let it get the better of him, even if it meant he had to spend hours each day clearing his airways. Instead, the film suggests it made him more serious, more focused. He watched films studiously, learning as much as he could. While on movie sets, he never went back to his trailer, preferring to watch the crew in action. He kept diaries and wrote constantly. His writings in this film are narrated by Nicolas Cage, who captures Yelchin’s self-deprecating intelligence without being showy about it.
Yelchin gradually shifted from child roles into more complex parts, and Price includes many interviews with actors and directors on whom he made an impression. Kristen Stewart speaks with bittersweet fondness since he broke her young heart. Jennifer Lawrence tells a story about how he helped her become a better actor. There are countless more, including his castmates from the Star Trek films, and their memories depict a budding filmmaker and intellectual who was devoted to his craft. Their candor is what keeps Love, Antosha from being too maudlin.
Aside from Yelchin’s unique investment in his roles, the film also includes insight into his personal life and other pursuits. He was a budding photographer who liked to shoot the seedier parts of Los Angeles, including S&M clubs. Several friends insinuate he was a Lothario, but not the sort that ever made anyone feel jealous. On paper, these vignettes sound like the typical flourishes of an artsy young adult male, but Price carefully edits all the footage—contrasting anecdotes with snippets of his acting—so that the cumulative impression is that, yes, Yelchin was the real deal. In films like Alpha Dog and 5 to 7, you see an actor whose choices seem instinctive, and yet are informed by a tireless desire for self-improvement.
Yelchin died in the summer of 2016, and Love, Antosha wistfully considers this loss. The film does not dwell on his death, nor does Price let his camera linger on his interview subjects in their more emotional moments. It’s a celebration of a life well lived, and how a creative kid transitions into the beginnings of a serious artist. We will never know what could have been, so at least this film could serve as an inspiration for doing the most with what you’ve got.
Love, Antosha opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.