REVIEW | OPINION: Film ‘You Have No Idea’ celebrates Evan James and his supporting village

El Dorado's Evan James was a beautiful baby, but he was slow to hit his “development marks” and eventually diagnosed as autistic. Director Alexander Jeffrey tells his story in “You Have No Idea.”
El Dorado's Evan James was a beautiful baby, but he was slow to hit his “development marks” and eventually diagnosed as autistic. Director Alexander Jeffrey tells his story in “You Have No Idea.”

The backstory of Shreveport-based, El Dorado-reared and Canadian-born Alexander Jeffery's affecting, sometimes funny and ultimately life-affirming documentary "You Have No Idea" is that it started as a birthday present. El Dorado dentist Paul Burns approached Jeffery about making a short video celebrating his wife, Beth James Burns. It was to be a "thank you" for her part in raising her son Evan James, born in 1991.

Jeffery had known Beth and her family for years -- she has served as the executive director of the South Arkansas Arts Center -- and, more to the point, knew Evan. And it wasn't long before he thought about expanding his job-for-hire into a feature documentary. The Burnses signed on as executive producers.

Beth and her first husband, Dennis James, had tried for years to have a child before Evan was born, and she'd experienced several miscarriages. The opening moments of the movie capture -- on archival VHS footage -- her first time holding her newborn and affirming his preciousness.

But there'd be no movie without conflict. Though no one knew it at first, Evan was born autistic. It was when he was around 2 years old that Beth became concerned he wasn't hitting the correct developmental markers. Others were skeptical; Evan was a kind and agreeable child, a handsome, congenial baby, "sweet and kind."

So he was a little slow developing; every kid is different, right?

"He really was just the most beautiful baby, young child, that you ever saw," family friend Richard relates in an interview with the filmmaker. "He looked like an angel, he really did."

But Evan wasn't speaking. He wasn't responding to simple instructions. Beth thought he had a hearing problem.

Mother knew best. Soon he was diagnosed by Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

It wasn't the end of the world. But Evan would need speech and occupational therapy. They advised her to limit her son's social interactions, a strategy Beth and Dennis rejected.

"All these therapies," Beth says. "But as for practical living. It was pretty much 'Have a nice life.'"

While there may be more resources for parents dealing with an autistic toddler today, the '90s were a different time, and Beth had to hustle to find help for him. She was determined to "create a life" for Evan. More than anything else, she decided, Evan required community, a village of supportive professionals and regular people. While Evan perceived the world differently, he didn't lack in intelligence or talent.

  photo  When her toddler was diagnosed as autistic, El Dorado's Beth James Burns set about building a supportive village around him. Her story is told in the documentary "You Have No Idea."  

There are times -- such as when his father dies or during the covid-19 pandemic -- when Evan needs help comprehending what has happened; when Beth and her confederates need to fashion a story to help him understand death. His favorite movie, 1994's "The Lion King," helps him, as he identifies with the cub Simba, who lost his father in the film.

(Evan is also given to quoting Jeremy Irons' dialogue as lion king Scar whenever anyone is so socially maladroit as to comment on his "weirdness," purring "You have no idea.")

From archival footage (home videos of birthday parties and Evan toddling around the family home and receiving therapy in Memphis), old photographs and interviews with Evan, Beth and the people who know, love and support Evan, Jeffery weaves a delicate, compelling and relatable story that is heartfelt without becoming mawkish or emotionally prescriptive to tell about the tribulations -- and rewards -- of raising a different kid in the 1990s and beyond.

If that sounds like mild drama, well maybe it is, but the film is carried more by compelling characters than pathos.

Autism is, as they say, "a spectrum," and every autistic person is a neurally diverse individual. Evan is smart and funny and a wonderful mimic, but he can't function without his village, which grows to encompass much of El Dorado.

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  • Cast: documentary, with Evan James, Beth James Burns, Paul Burns, Kenny Burns III, Mary Pat Anthony, Richard Wharton, William Burns, Caroline Burns, Grace Terblock
  • Director: Alexander Jeffery
  • Rating: Not rated
  • Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
  • The Arkansas Cinema Society will screen "You Have No Idea" at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts at 6:30 p.m. March 29. Tickets are $15 and available at After the screening there will be an audience Q&A with filmmaker Jeffery and subjects Beth and Paul Burns.

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