Pay It Forward


Directed by: Mimi Leder
Written by:Leslie Dixon
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, Jim Caviezel
Released: February 22, 2001
Grade: A-

"Think of an idea to change our world and put the idea into action."  It's an assignment that teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey) asks his social studies class on the first day of every.  It is for extra credit and those students keen to take up his offer have the whole year to complete it.

11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Osment) tackles Mr Simonet's challenge and comes up with an idea.  It begins simply enough - you do three huge favours for three other people and it has to be something big, something that they can't do for themselves.  Then, when they ask how they can pay you back, you tell them to pay it forward and do three huge favours for three other people.  Thus, in a short space of time, people should be doing favours for everyone all over the world.

Eugene is impressed with Trevor's suggestion but understands that it revolves entirely around the honour system and to put the idea into practice would be an impossibility - there just isn't enough faith in the world.  Soon enough though, Trevor tests his theory and one of his favours is to set up the lonely Mr Simonet with his equally lonely mother, Arlene (Hunt).  Both have been scarred by past relationships but slowly, Trevor melts the hesitation between them.  Can they find the courage from within to let go and take a chance?

Meanwhile, there is a journalist in Los Angeles named Chris Chandler (Mohr) who is involved in a car accident and is given a brand new Jaguar by a stranger in the street under the condition that he pay the favour forward.  This could be a great story.  So he starts out tracing the "movement" back to where it began...

Having read the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, I felt that Pay It Forward would translate into overly sentimental tripe on the big screen.  I was wrong.  The adaptation was true to the story's heart and was told in a more concise and interesting fashion.  We know that the "pay it forward" idea has been successful given that Chris is tracing it back but it's great to watch both stories concurrently.  We see the beginning and the end and we're working towards the middle.  On a side note, Eugene's character in the book is black and I am at a loss to explain why he was not so in the film.  Perhaps the filmmakers felt the racial issue would complicate things too much but I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do.

What stops Pay It Forward breaking through into a higher class is an overuse of perfect dialogue.  Arlene does not talk to her son like he's an 11-year-old and the dialogue between Eugene and Arlene is too analytical.  It may sound like a trivial point but every time I found myself sucked in by the film, a silly scene would ruin it and bring me back to reality.

Performances are all great and Haley Joel Osment's youthful enthusiasm rubs off on both Spacey and Hunt who make a believable couple.  The tension and apprehension between the two that took so much time to develop in the novel, is evident right away and it's a tribute to the talents both actors possess.

It's hard to conclude on the whole "pay it forward" idea.  In general is the world a good place, a bad place, or do we even care at all?  If someone did a huge favour for me and asked me to pay it forward, would I do it?  Would you do it?  Do we give those around us more credit or less credit than they truly deserve?  This film doesn't offer any answers, but it does raise interesting questions.  Worth thinking about.