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The filmmaking prodigy of Arroyo Grande 

Fourteen-year-old actor/director Matthew J. Evans makes films with surprisingly adult themes

Striking up a conversation with Matthew J. Evans is a strangely disarming experience. You know he’s only 14. But that information doesn’t quite jive with the well-spoken individual who greets me the Monday morning after a film he’s in, Bad Teacher, hit theaters, a kid whose adolescent good-naturedness turns to serious reflection when talking about his work. As an actor, Evans first appeared in the indie flicks Downstream and Smiley Face, though his early documentary filmmaking efforts are perhaps more telling of his uncommon talent and maturity.

- FREE HUGS! :  Matthew J. Evans and Cameron Diaz share an embrace on the set of Bad Teacher. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF MATTHEW J. EVANS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF MATTHEW J. EVANS
  • FREE HUGS! : Matthew J. Evans and Cameron Diaz share an embrace on the set of Bad Teacher.

When I meet Evans, flanked by his mother Leona, at Unity Church where she works, he’s taking Bad Teacher’s mixed report card in stride.

“It’s been getting some not-so-good press, some mixed reviews, but I’m really happy with how many people are seeing it,” he says. “And everyone I know who has seen it has laughed.”

The R-rated Teacher, in which Evans portrays the adorably nerdy Garrett Tiara (components of geekdom: hair gelled flat to scalp; same sweatshirt every day; one of those stridently uncool rolly backpacks), was the second highest-grossing film in its opening weekend.

Cameron Diaz stars as the foulmouthed, criminally oversexed, manipulative middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey, who begrudgingly keeps up her teaching gig (how and why she secured it in the first place, we’re not sure) only after being dumped by the rich guy she’d been gold-digging. Then Justin Timberlake shows up as the new substitute, and guess what? He’s loaded. Diaz’s Elizabeth simply recalibrates her gold-digging charms, this time honing in on the new sub. But Elizabeth’s goody-goody colleague Amy Squirrel, played by Lucy Punch, threatens to ruin everything. If only Elizabeth had larger breasts! That’s what this writer got out of the film anyway.

Reviewers rightfully critiqued the film’s loopy plot structure. Still, Bad Teacher is entertaining, with genuinely funny moments and a talented supporting cast. And as Garrett, Evans is hilarious—and all too real.

“For Garrett, there were some similarities to me,” Evans concedes, laughing. “Probably more than I’d like to admit.”

The role certainly marks a turning point for Evans the actor. But it’s only part of his story.

At the age of 9, Evans spent a summer at Sundance Director’s Lab, a workshop for young professional directors conducted by Robert Redford. Each director chooses two professional actors to work with, and a slightly younger Evans was among those selected.

“I hadn’t begun filmmaking when we went to Sundance, but I took a lot of those experiences and tried to apply them to my filmmaking, remembering what they said about certain lighting, or how to set up a shot,” Evans explains.

In 2009, his first short documentary, Staying Spry, won first place in its category at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival’s Filmmakers of Tomorrow competition. That initial effort was followed by A War Story, A Love Story, a documentary that looked into his grandparents’ pasts during the Korean War. The film pulled in Best Documentary and Best in Festival at the Interlochen Future of Cinema International Film Festival in 2011.

Though Evans was still mastering his film and editing equipment, he was already, consciously or not, laying the groundwork for his own particular moviemaking style. Without exception, the subjects of his films are ordinary people he knows whose stories of survival clamor to be told.

Staying Spry centered on an elderly woman working hard to stay fit and strong as her husband’s memory was gradually consumed by Alzheimer’s disease. (During one particular shoot, Leona Evans recalls, the woman’s husband mistook Evans for his own son who had passed away. Not having the heart to contradict him, Evans simply hugged the elderly man as the cameras continued to roll.)

A War Story explored a part of the family past that had largely gone unaddressed: Evans’ grandfather’s service—and several narrow brushes with death—in the Korean War.

Evans’ latest offering, Poetic Justice Project, is another such tale of survival. The film tells the stories behind the San Luis Obispo theater company of the same name, a group of formerly incarcerated actors, artists, writers, and musicians. The group’s stage performances address themes of crime, and punishment, and redemption, and many of its members credit the creative outlet it affords with transforming their lives.

One particularly moving part of the film shows Poetic Justice Project member William Lamar Brown taking Evans on a guided tour of the East Los Angeles neighborhood where he once led a life of crime.

“I was out here, writing on the walls, selling dope, gang-banging, shooting, doing a whole bunch of other things that normally a 13- or 14-year-old kid wouldn’t be doing,” narrates Brown, cruising through the streets of his former turf. And it changes things to note that the person on the other side of the camera is 13 or 14.

As Poetic Justice Project makes the festival rounds (it nabbed three Los Angeles Movie Awards), Evans is working on his fourth film, The Woody Duffy Story, about a friend diagnosed with the obscure, seemingly incurable disease MPS1.

The message of the film, Evans says in a television segment on his work, is “even though the obstacles might seem so high, that you’d have to work so hard, and it might not even work out at the end … there’s always a chance that you can succeed. You should always have hope.”

Anyone who can look into a camera and say that without a hint of irony—or acting—is someone to be envied. 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner has an irony detector. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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