Another good-bye, but this time a premature one
I encountered Anton Yelchin at a q&a after the press and industry screening of a movie he starred in called “Like Crazy” at Sundance 2011.
A beanie’d kid with fair skin and light eyes was sitting next to me in the dark theater and when the lights went up he got up and walked toward the stage. Since there are a lot of beanie’d kids with fair skin and light eyes running around Park City, I didn’t think much of it until a person in a headset handed him a microphone and he started talking about his role in the film.
Yelchin and actress Felicity Jones (most notable for her portrayal of Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything and the upcoming sidebar in the Star Wars canon, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) were both in their early 20s then and the buzz around their mostly ad-libbed performances in the Drake Doremus, himself then a Sundance writer/director prodigy, film announced an arrival of sorts.
If Alvie and Annie beget Harry and Sally beget Lloyd and Diane — then Yelchin and Jones’s Jacob and Anna were the early twenty teens homage if not direct descendants of a fate so charming and real it must be what love looks like when we sleep.
The movie centers around English major Anna, who is slightly younger than her independent-femme-in-the-throes predecessors, and consequently throws herself at the laconic Jacob, a design major who ends up in her lit class to fulfill some liberal arts credits.
Anna, a British exchange student, leaves a charming/scary/lengthy/hastily crafted love note on Jacob’s windshield in a campus parking lot which results in a date. Doremus fills this first encounter with sweaty palmed authenticity. Both actors show the fragility of those first moments and — as we’re asked to reflect on our own love lives — showcases better than any film since those tenuous steps on the shaky bridge that traverses the roaring stream of potential.
How many dates would have gone differently if you didn’t catch that someone looking at you a certain way when they thought you weren’t looking? How many encounters end at the doorstep in awkward, lingering blabber not knowing when to go or how to make the move (or whether to or whether not to?) How many morning afters are ruined by seeing that same person, all charm, buzzed wit and fake swagger in the dark, now a creeping headache version of the person from the night before?
Jones and Yelchin mine all this territory in the first act — and almost immediately they are a pair worth rooting for.
The plot is a little thin. The pair spend a farewell weekend together in Southern California because her student visa is about to expire. She doesn’t want to go so she overstays, which is a no-no. They spend a montage summer walking around and laughing into one another’s shoulders, and when she finally does return home to London, she can’t come back.
She tries once, and when she does she’s picked up by airport immigration and put in one of those movie-interrogation rooms with a two-way mirror a table and a pair of chairs.
Five years on and some of the pair’s travails seem assailable. Why couldn’t they just Skype? Why couldn’t he go back there and live? And why, exactly, can’t they work things out with immigration?
Jacob’s unwillingness to travel is answered by the fact that his startup chair design business (???) is booming in Santa Monica. Which is strange that any 22-year-old would find such immediate success — and if so, couldn’t replicate it overseas. Oh, then there’s a little matter that Jacob has already shacked up with another girl (Sam, played by a soon-to-be-super-famous Jennifer Lawrence who appears in Jacob’s idyllic loft space as if he’d mail ordered a model from the Anthropologie catalog to occupy his cool digs.) This is before we had fully come to know Lawrence, but as soon as she pops on the scene she basically takes over and you think, hey, not bad.
It’s a credit to Jones that she plays Anna so deftly that even when she scares up a beau of her own in Simon (Charlie Bewley), you believe that she’s still down to the last stitch committed to Jacob. For his part, Yelchin’s character — which is the lesser-formed of the pair — is played with sincerity and humor and, well, try to find any other male actor under 30 who can show that kind of care and insecurity and awkwardness and fragility…and remain genuine and likeable.
Yelchin, 27, was killed on Sunday in a freak accident where his SUV (a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee) rolled down the driveway and pinned him against the front gate’s brick wall of his Studio City home. It should be noted Chrysler, which builds the car, has recalled all 1.1 million of that year’s model because it is difficult for the driver to tell whether the gearbox is in park.
2016 has become the rapture in slow motion, or maybe we’re just losing our greatest hits. Rickman, Bowie, Haggard, Prince, Ali, Howe — the difference is Yelchin was shorted three or four decades of his best work. Though audiences will enjoy him in the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond, Rememory, Porto and Thoroughbred, it is a career cut down well before its prime.
“Like Crazy” went on to win the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize that year. By the time Yelchin sat back down next to me I was gathering my things. “Nice job,” I said.
“Thanks,” he straightened his scarf and I noticed his zitty forehead as he looked down at my notebook. “Write something nice.”