When I was in high school, I first watched Anton Yelchin star in Charlie Bartlett in the auditorium of a Catholic elementary school during a youth group meeting. I was seventeen, shy, and anxious, and his performance meant everything to me. In one role, he managed to capture all the anxieties and neuroses of my teenage self, while still managing to overcome them, without ever losing them. If that doesn’t make any sense, than perhaps a quick summary of the film should suffice. Anton Yelchin plays the titular Charlie Bartlett, a privileged teenage boy with a father in prison and an emotionally broken mother. He drifts from prep school to prep school like Holden Caulfield without all the misanthropy, before finally winding up at a public school. He ends up running a makeshift psychiatry clinic/pharmacy hybrid in the stalls of the boys bathroom, providing the students with drugs and therapy.
In the hands of Anton Yelchin, Charlie Bartlett became more than just a movie about a high school drug dealer at odds with his principal. It was more than a story about a teenager wanting to be popular with his classmates. The film captures perfectly the shitty time that is high school. How hard it is to try and create your own identity, while still craving acceptance from your peers, while the whole time there is this nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that you should have your shit way more together than you do at the moment. For myself, and for a lot of others, even if we didn’t share Charlie Bartlett’s exact circumstances, Anton Yelchin made him a hero for us.
Even in 2006’s Alpha Dog, he still had the same awkwardly curious spirit. In the film, Yelchin plays Nicholas Markowitz, a boy kidnapped by drug dealers as ransom for his older brothers drug debt. While much of the film could have played out as the glorification of a brutal, real life murder, and a Justin Timberlake vehicle, Yelchin’s performance gave the film a transcending emotional core. His performance is hands down the highlight of the film, and it is because he plays Markowitz with the same genuine, emotional curiosity with which he played Charlie Bartlett. Both characters are kindred souls, confused kids trying to figure out and experience life in its most perplexing times.
In the years since then, Yelchin has gone on to act in the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot, where he plays Chekov, the youngest member of the Enterprise crew. He has acted alongside Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation. But even as Yelchin saw bigger roles come his way, he balanced them out with a slew of small releases, such as this year’s Green Room. At the age of 27, he had built an impressive and diverse filmography, one that seemed only capable of improving as he got older.
Anton Yelchin was a phenomenal actor. But more importantly he was a mirror. He had the ability to capture our anxieties in a recognizable and human fashion, while providing a sense of hope. He played genuinely good people in confusing situations at confusing times, and every time we watched him there was a distinct feeling that he cared about us and whatever complicated experiences we were having.
By Alex Sniatkowski