Pay It Forward (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Pay It Forward couldn't have more obvious aspirations if the filmmakers announced them. Featuring a top-notch cast; an adept script that meshes tragedy, light comedy, romance, and melodrama; and the kind of overall optimism that is a perfect tonic for the ever-burgeoning national cynicism, Pay It Forward strikes many of the same chords played by Oscar contenders from It's a Wonderful Life to Forrest Gump. Call it the anti-American Beauty. Movies made with the full intention of shining during the autumn Academy Awards selection season often come across as graceless, lumbering creatures - disjointed messes that fall victim to their own pomposity and presumptuousness. Not so with Pay It Forward, which successfully avoids most of the obvious traps, resulting a final product that is both affecting and effective.

The premise is enough to get our attention; the characters keep it. Things start out simply enough: it's the first day of school for seventh grader Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), who finds himself face-to-face with the realities of middle school in Las Vegas - including metal detectors and bullies who find ways to sneak knives past the security checkpoints. Trevor's social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), is a challenging and unconventional sort of educator, and it isn't only the burn marks on his face that make him different - he doesn't just want his pupils to learn places and dates, he wants to prepare them to face life. "What does the world mean to you?" he asks. "What does the world expect of you?" In Trevor's case, the answers aren't positive ones - his mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is an alcoholic who works two jobs to pay the bills then drinks like a fish when she thinks no one is looking, and his father (Jon Bon Jovi) has long since split. Yet when Mr. Simonet offers his students an extra-credit project, "Think of an idea to change our world - and put it into action," Trevor attacks it with all the vigor he can muster. The result is something he calls "Pay It Forward."

The idea is more profound than one might normally expect from a child. Trevor will perform three acts of unsolicited kindness with the only requirement being that each recipient of his goodwill must "pay it forward" to three other people. And so on, and so on, and so on... (Like in the hair care commercial.) It's a practical application of karma, and Mr. Simonet is impressed, even as he wonders whether it's an "overly utopian idea." Nevertheless, Trevor gets to work, setting his sights first on a homeless man (James Caviezel), whom he invites inside for a meal and a place to sleep. His second target is Mr. Simonet, a lonely man Trevor thinks would make a perfect companion for his mother. But, as Trevor learns, kindness and the best intentions are not always enough.

The film has a split focus, interweaving time lines to tell both Trevor's story and that of the movement he founds. The primary branch of Pay It Forward is a chronological account of how the 11 year-old conceives of, develops, and attempts to implement his radical idea. The rest of the movie is set four months in the future and follows the investigation of a reporter (Jay Mohr) into the growing phenomenon. He pursues a trail that leads from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, encountering various adherents to the Pay it Forward philosophy. Eventually, as the movie nears its conclusion, the first time frame catches up with the second and they merge.

The belief that humanity can be redeemed is not a popular notion these days, especially considering the hundreds of atrocities that are repeated every day all across the globe. Indeed, some of the most powerful motion pictures being crafted are those that shine a light into these dark corners, exposing the festering corruption that often goes unnoticed. This makes it all the more remarkable that a movie like Pay It Forward can work. To be fair, the film is not all light, sunshine, and feel-good impulses - there are shadows and tears lurking here, as well, but the overall message is one of hope and optimism. Could the "Pay It Forward" movement work in the real world? Probably not (at least on a wide scale), but one interesting question to ponder is whether you, if confronted with a random act of kindness, would be willing to keep the compact and pass on the goodwill. Providing an honest answer might require more soul-searching than many of us are comfortable doing.

Not everyone is going to appreciate Pay It Forward; there are those who despise It's a Wonderful Life and become physically ill at the thought of sitting through a scene of Forrest Gump. In terms of plot, there's not much synergy between Pay It Forward and Gump, but the similarities in tone and spirit are unmistakable. People react differently to sentiment, and there's no doubt that this film, like those two, operates in the arena of skillful manipulation. The key here is the word "skillful". Pay It Forward is not mawkish, crass, or clumsy. It does not attempt to turn our emotions into a cat's cradle like the latest dying-of-a-mysterious-disease movie. Instead, it offers an intelligent screenplay that tells an intriguing story about interesting characters, and, in the process, allows us to believe in an improbable dream. It's about lonely people reaching out and coming together, not disconnecting.

The director of Pay It Forward is Mimi Leder, who is a Steven Spielberg protégé. Her two previous theatrical credits (coming after a slew of TV work), The Peacemaker and Deep Impact, were made under the auspices of Spielberg's Dreamworks. From Jaws to E.T. to Schindler's List, Spielberg has long been recognized as one of Hollywood's master manipulators, and Leder shows some of the same ability here. Throughout Pay It Forward, she treads the fine line between too little and too much, and only stumbles on one occasion, during a key scene near the end (the effect is reminiscent of the Schindler's List title character's agonizing over not saving more lives).

If Leder's direction is the reason we don't feel that we're drowning in a sea of syrup, the multidimensionality of the characters is why we are drawn into this story. If Trevor, Arlene, and Eugene weren't as deeply realized, Pay It Forward's emotional resonance would have come across as sappy and cloying. But each of these three is a compelling individual. Trevor is a boy in search of stability and meaning - he has the childlike ability to see the good in people and to ignore the consequences of his actions, but the adult insight to understand what others need. Eugene is a man whose scars have done far more damage than what is physically evident. His obsessive hunger for routine is as understandable as it is sad. And Arlene is more than just a token alcoholic. There comes a time when she refuses to continue her role as a victim.

Of course, with a cast of Pay It Forward's pedigree - two Oscar winners and a nominee - one has a right to expect believable characters. Spacey, who can enliven just about anything, offers us a sympathetic Eugene, whose onion-like emotional layers are gradually peeled back. As Arlene, Helen Hunt gives a stronger performance than she gave in As Good as It Gets, although there are a few occasions when she doesn't quite fit the white trash mold. Finally, Haley Joel Osment, fresh from his success in The Sixth Sense, is credible as the idealistic Trevor. His work is unfeigned and natural, and he shows a poise that should allow him to make the difficult transition through puberty that kills so many promising young careers. Supporting performers include James Caviezel, Jay Mohr, and Angie Dickenson as Pay It Forward participants.

Pay It Forward reserves its greatest rewards for those who give in to the experience. There's a textual richness to the screenplay that likely owes a debt to Catharine Ryan Hyde's source novel. Issues such as child/spousal abuse and addiction are used more meaningfully than as a convenient plot devices. Cynics may scoff at the film's apparently old-fashioned values, but there's a quiet power at work here that is hard to deny. Provided the film's distributors develop an effective marketing campaign, Pay It Forward should pay dividends both now at the box office and early next year when the Academy Award nominations are announced.

Pay It Forward (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2000-10-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1