By Joel Warner
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Boosted by endorsements from David Lynch and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Cabin Fever was a buzz feature at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival. A minor bidding war followed, and Roth eventually secured distribution through Lion's Gate Films. A scene featuring Matthew as Dennis has been a cornerstone of the company's marketing campaign for the movie.
"You are going to be a star," Roth said in a recent e-mail. "I would make your haircut into a wig and sell it for Halloween. Seriously!!! Kids are asking me for them. I'm not joking."
As the Gary Coleman gubernatorial campaign illustrates, for child stars, it can be a very short distance from the cover of TV Guide to a ringside seat at Celebrity Boxing. Pushy parents can make the distance even shorter.
Becky Helm is very aware of this.
"You always hear people talking about how you should never work with animals or kids. I think most of the time it's not the kids, it's the parents of the kids," she says. "Some of them are just awful, and the kids feed off it, demanding this or that.
"There is one surefire way to make sure that your child does not work," she adds, "and that's to be a pain in the you-know-what as a parent."
Blond and bubbly, with a honeyed Southern voice, Becky's been there for every competition, demo, television taping, photo shoot, audition and early-morning call of her young son's life. (She was enlisted as an extra on Black Knight because "Martin Lawrence is cheap and I was already there.") In addition to serving as her son's manager, counselor, driver, stylist, hairdresser, videographer, photographer and agent, she's also his teacher: Eight years ago, Becky gave up her career as a public-school teacher to home-school Matthew. When he completes his high-school curriculum, which Becky expects him to do by the age of sixteen, he'll have a diploma that's been equally shaped by reading, writing, horseback riding and theatrical fencing.
Becky is in the slightly skewed position of wanting to both promote and protect her child. All interviews take place outside of the family's Lakewood home, under the watchful eye and ear of Mom or Dad. But Becky says that she and Tony are hands-off parents: They only push Matthew to work as much as he wants to -- which, as it happens, is a whole lot.
"I go out of my way to show that it really is his idea," Becky says. "When we were on the set of Cabin Fever, I was really careful to keep my distance and not get too involved in what was happening moment to moment. I don't want the director to think that he needs me, that he can't function without his mom."
Matthew doesn't know that many kids in his neighborhood. In fact, he doesn't know many kids.
"Most of my friends in Denver are through karate," he says. "Those are just my basic kid friends. But mostly I'm really good friends with adults. I think that has a lot to do with my martial-arts background, which would never allow you to be disrespectful. Like, a lot of the kids I've met in Colorado, they go around and cuss. That would be really easy to pick up, so I avoid them."
Matthew addresses adults as "Sir" and "Ma'am," is a practicing Catholic and has never toilet-papered a house or made a crank call.
"I just don't see the point of that," he says.
"I have played a few tricks on my mom," he adds. "We had a magazine with gory photos from Cabin Fever in it, and I snuck around the corner and stuck it in her face, like, 'Blah!' And there have been times when she's said, you know, 'Don't eat chocolate,' and I ate chocolate. One time she told me not to hop a fence, but my ball went over the fence, so I hopped it."
Despite his apparent lack of a single mischievous gene -- clue 101 -- Matthew does resemble a thirteen-year-old boy in a few ways. His shoe size recently jumped to eleven, and his stretch-doll physique and newly long limbs hint at encroaching height. And if you bring up girls in his presence, you're bound to get a shy grin or a giggle.
"A friend of mine once asked me, 'Well, how many girlfriends do you have?' And I said, 'Too darn many!'" Matthew says. "Girls are always coming up to me. I think they like my hair.
"This one time, when I was ten, I was at a karate tournament, and this girl was following me around, like, 'Let's go do this, let's go do that,'" he continues. "She told me she was going to be the first girl to French kiss me. I was like, 'Um, no!' Most of the girls I know, I just want to be their friend. I don't want to be one of the kids who's a father when he's fifteen years old."
Still, the Helmses all recognize that a bona fide teen heartthrob has real marketing potential, and they wouldn't mind moving Matthew into that category. So earlier this year, Tony uploaded photos and bios of Matthew to www.BoyCrazy.com, a Tiger Beat-style online magazine where young girls weigh in on the relative cuteness of young boys. In an e-mail campaign, Tony asked friends, fans and the media to vote for Matthew as the site's greatest catch. He didn't win, but for the month that it was featured on the site, Matthew's photo was among the most popular. Some visitors to www.CabinFever.com have revealed burgeoning crushes, as well.