Rating: (3 stars)
Anton Yelchin, the prolific actor best known for playing Pavel Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek movies, died in 2016 when, in a freak accident, his unattended SUV rolled backward down his own driveway, pinning him against a brick and iron gate. He was 27. A new documentary about him, “Love, Antosha,” is less a somber memorial than a celebration of a life lived fully, if all too briefly.
Director Garret Price, making his feature debut, uses home movies to show a boy who found his calling at an early age. Videos of Yelchin reveal a precocious child acting out an adventure called “The Phantom” in his jammies. You can see the intensity, the exuberance and the endearing hamminess that would serve the actor well through his career.
Born in Russia, Yelchin seems to have inherited his dramatic flair from his parents, Irina and Viktor Yelchin, who were figure skaters in the Leningrad Ice Ballet. After fleeing political oppression, the family settled in Los Angeles in 1989. It was the perfect place to foster their son’s love of movies.
That love started by watching such fare as “The Last Action Hero” and “Space Jam.” But when he was 11 or 12, Yelchin’s parents gave him his first taste of more challenging stories in “Taxi Driver.” If Martin Scorsese’s dark, disturbing drama would not be at the top of most lists of family-friendly films, the 1976 movie inspired Yelchin to act, and he made his television debut in a 2000 episode of “ER,” playing a boy whose parents were killed in an accident.
Yelchin’s life wasn’t as charmed as it may have appeared to his fans. As a child, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, requiring daily treatments and hours of breathing exercises for the rest of his life.
“Love, Antosha” takes its title from the way Yelchin signed letters to his mother, evidence of a close and enduring relationship that seems to have driven his creativity and his generosity of spirit. In the movie, we see a genuineness that set him apart from many of his Hollywood peers. In a clip of Yelchin receiving an award for his breakout 2002 performance in “House of D,” director David Duchovny comes off as smarmy, boasting of his own creative integrity and “morality” as he introduces Yelchin. Yelchin, by contrast, seems modest and unassuming.
By all accounts he never grew out of that.
Such earnestness is a large part of what makes “Love, Antosha” at once charming and bittersweet. But the film loses focus a little as it heaps accolades on the late actor. While Yelchin’s “Star Trek” castmate Chris Pine comes off as just relatable as Yelchin — and such veterans as Willem Dafoe and Martin Landau share avuncular admiration — other reminiscences feel like distractions.
Still, it’s a brilliant touch to have Nicolas Cage serve as an occasional narrator. Quoting from one of Yelchin’s journal entries, written after the child actor’s first screen kiss, Cage reads, “I hope it happens many more times,” gently leering in what may be a memory of his own youth. Later, when Cage works up to one of his signature rants, reading from an email in which Yelchin lamented his disease, Cage’s performance seems like something that Yelchin himself would probably have appreciated.
Mostly, the Antosha of “Love, Antosha” seems like a good kid: someone whose life — and tragic death — should inspire us to spend our brief time here as wisely and as well as he did.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, some sexuality and nudity (including a photo Chris Pine says he wishes he could unsee). 93 minutes.