Recent films are less cynical and more upbeat. Audiences are responding favorably. As this film ended the audience applauded. There is a cultural shift.
Review by David Bruce


This page was created on October 15, 2000
This page was last updated on May 29, 2005

Directed by Mimi Leder
Writing credits: Catherine Ryan Hyde (book), Leslie Dixon (screenplay)

Haley Joel Osment .... Trevor McKinney
Kevin Spacey .... Eugene Simonet
Helen Hunt .... Arlene McKinney
James Caviezel .... Jerry
Shawn Pyfrom .... Sean
Jeanetta Arnette
Jon Bon Jovi
Angie Dickinson
Marc Donato
Rusty Meyers .... News Stand Guy
Jay Mohr
David Ramsey

Directed by Mimi Leder
Writing credits (WGA) Catherine Ryan Hyde (book) Leslie Dixon (screenplay)
Produced by Peter Abrams, Paddy Carson (associate), Robert L. Levy, Mary McLaglen (executive), Steven Reuther, Jonathan Treisman (executive)
Original music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton
Film Editing by David Rosenbloom

Rated PG

Click for larger imageClick for larger image

1. Possibility 2. Car Trouble 3. Washer Vodka 4. Cereal Bum 5. Come Out Jerry 6. Fixture Vodka 7. Rat Bastard 8. One Kiss 9. Tardiness 10. In Recovery 11. Jaguar 12. Dumpster 13. Sleepover 14. Cosmic Aristotle 15. Euphemism 16. Homeless 17. Pay It Forward 18. Night And Day And Night 19. Asthma 20. Powers Of Three 21. Desert Drive 22. Wasted Air 23. The Bad Thing 24. Gasoline 25. Velocity Organ 26. I Forgive You 27. Calling All Angels - Jane Siberry
Click for information

Pay it forward. The rules:
#1 It has to be something that really helps people.
#2 Something they can't do by themselves.
#3 I do it for them, they do it for three other people.
Tells the story of a social studies teacher who gives an assignment to his junior high school class to think of an idea to change the world for the better, then put it into action. When one young student creates a plan for "paying forward" favors, he not only affects the life of his struggling single mother, but he sets in motion an unprecedented wave of human kindness which, unbeknownst to him, has blossomed into a profound national phenomenon.
Although some story elements are revealed.

Click for larger imageSOCIAL STUDIES CLASS.
The story begins in a junior high school social studies class. There are maps of the world all over the class. The discussion is about how bad the world can be.

Teacher Eugene states, "What does the world expect from you? Nothing! What if the world is a big disappointment? Unless you take the things you don't like and turn them upside down. And, you can start that today." Notice the word 'Utopian' written on the black board. Notice also the scars on his face from deep fire burns.

Click for larger imageTHE ASSIGNMENT
The teacher then reveals the assignment: "Think of an idea to change the world and put it into action."
Click for larger imageTREVOR'S PAY IT FORWARD IDEA
Trevor shares his idea with the class. He calls it "Pay it forward." The idea is to help 3 different people and ask them to return the favor by doing something good for three other people, etc..

Rule #1 It has to be something that really helps people.
Rule #2 Something they can't do by themselves.
Rule #3 I do it for them, they do it for three other people.
Click for larger imagePUTTING THE IDEA INTO ACTION
Trevor looks around town to find someone he can help.
He comes across a dry river bed where homeless men hang out.
He takes a homeless man home, feeds him and gives him a place to sleep in the garage.
To "pay it forward" the man fixes Trevor's mom's car. It is here that Arlene, Trevor's unaware mother, discovers the homeless man. Arlene kicks him out and plans to talk to the teacher.
Back on the street, the homeless man spots a woman attempting suicide.
Click for larger imageHE CONFRONTS THE WOMAN.
He rescues her. His second 'pay it forward.' Now she begins to pay it forward.
Click for larger imageTHE PAY IT FORWARD IDEA SPREADS.
Random acts of kindness mushroom. Even a prisoner helps others by paying it forward.
On a rainy night a news reporter's car is totaled. A passing stranger, the father of the young woman, pays it forward by giving his expensive luxury car to the automobile victim. The news reporter decides to do a story on this phenomenon.
Click for larger imageMOTHER WANTS TO KNOW WHY.
Arlene, Kevin's mother, discovers that her son has been helping a homeless man. She comes to the school to find out what kind of teacher would assign such homework. The teacher, Trevor and Arlene have no idea how the 'pay it forward' actions are spreading. The teacher assures the mother that taking homeless men home was not the assignment. Notice the world maps and the word 'revolution' in the background.
Click for larger imageGETTING A NEW MAN FOR MOTHER.
Trevor decides that another person he should help is his teacher. He begins to set them up with each other.
Click for larger imageNEW LIFE BEGINS TO EMERGE.
For a time it seems to work. A romance seems to develop. The teacher's deep scars and disfigurement are not a factor with Arlene. The teacher feels acceptance.
Click for larger imageEVERYONE IS HAPPY.
Things seem to be flowing in a good direction. Her alcohol habit is on the wane. Good times are enjoyed by the three of them. However, the past suddenly surfaces.
Click for larger imageDEALING WITH THE PAST.
The abusive husband returns. Arlene allows him back into her life. The teacher does not come around any more. As a boy the teacher had been set afire by his abusive father. He fears that the same thing will happen to Trevor.
Click for larger imageDISCOURAGED.
The homeless man goes back to drugs. The romance between mother and teacher seems to be failing. The abusive father is back. Feeling like a failure he is encouraged by the teacher. There is a real bonding here.
Click for larger imagePROFOUND CONNECTION.
What goes around comes around. Now, Trevor encourages the teacher not give up on the relationship with his mother.
Click for larger imageTALKING IT THROUGH.
Confrontation and discussion is always a good course of action. The mother and teacher iron out their differences. She has rid herself of the abusive husband, and is determined to move forward.

The reporter finally tracks down the source of 'Pay it Forward.' And interviews Trevor for national television. This is not the ending, however. I will not spoil it for you. Notice the words "put it into action!" on the blackboard.

Click for larger imageEYES THAT SEE.
I was profoundly moved by this film. What a great idea. In a closing scene hundreds of people gather to honor the boy who taught the world to see other people with a heart bent on committing random acts of kindness.

I read one reviewer who said this was Karma. It most certainly is not. Karma is our own stuff coming back on us. These are rather acts of Amazing Grace. This is the practice of giving to others unmerited favor.

"God saved you by his special favor (grace) when you believed.
And you can't take credit for this;
it is a gift of God. Salvation is not a reward for good things we have done (karma),
so none of us can boast about it (self realization).
For we are God's masterpiece.
He has created us anew in Christ Jesus,
so that we can do the good things he has planned for us." -Ephesians 2: 8-10.

-Now that is paying it forward!

Subject: Pay_It_Forward
Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001
From: Pete

I enjoyed the movie, but was left with a lingering question. Why stop paying forward after three time? Christian love means continual self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

Subject: Pay it Forward
Date: Sun, 5 Nov 2000
From: Andres

Pay it Forward was a good 3.5 star movie. The cinematography was good, and the acting was also generally good. It was definately refreshing to see Helen Hunt in a role where she is less than perfect. The film was pretty original as far as the broad story-line goes, although it did subcome to many of the Hollywood cliches, for example the relatioship between the teacher and Trevor's mother exhibits the done story of a self-destructive woman and a somehow disabled person meeting, falling in love, and then the latter person being discarded for the woman's past. Yada yada. The film on the otherhand was also able to escape some of the typical cliches of Hollywood. When the homeless man is helped, instead of changing his life immediately, he needs a graffic illustration of his own suicide in the external form of a woman jumping from a bridge, to change his behaviour.

A rather unfortunate element of the movie which threw it down a huge peg was that the film had one of the worse and corniest endings I have ever seen. If they had finished the movie no more than 2 minutes earlier, the film would be a solid four stars. The candle-light vigil part was contrived, and in a way stood for bad ethics. It seemed to say that Trevor's good acts were somehow rendered more important by the fact that the general public became aware of his accomplishments.

Subject: Pay_It_Forward
Date: Sat, 4 Nov 2000
From: Mark

I saw this movie last night upon the advice of a Christian counselor.

I left feeling somewhat down. I'm afraid the basic premise of the film is that "in spite of everything, people are really good at heart." Trevor's contention at the end that "you can fix a person" is simply not true. No one portrayed in the film was ultimately fixed. All of them remained on a path of self-seeking that can end only in death (both physical and spiritual). Only God in Christ can "fix" a person.

The final scene with the Jane Siberry song seemed to sum up the view of the film, that somehow all of us "angels" can help one another stumble through a bent but not fallen world to some sort of love and meaning. I give the film credit for much more realism than most fantasies about human goodness (i.e. "Patch Adams"), but in the end it founders upon the same premise that somehow the human spirit can create goodness and meaning apart from the One who created us.

I believe in freedom from "stumbling through" that is found in the faith that is greater than the "faith in human nature" spoken of by Mr. Simonet upon his first hearing of Trevor's idea. There is freedom from living death in bondage to the gods of substances, sex and money.

The film was well-made, featured great performances from Spacey and Hunt, and told a compelling story (if a bit manipulatively). But the "freedom" that is promoted is not true freedom. Trevor's request to Mr. Simonet to "pay it forward" back to his Mom and Jerry's plea to the woman preparing to jump from the bridge to "save my life" show that this film really is about "karma" and not grace.

I wish it were otherwise.

Response: It seems you do not believe Grace is made known through acts of kindness, even when it comes from the "human spirit" which was created in the very image of God. It is through such life experiences that we can come to understand the Grace that God has for us in Christ Jesus. God is very much involved in all aspects of human life, and especially so where kindness is concerned. -David

Subject: Pay_It_Forward
Date: Thu, 2 Nov 2000
From: Larry

I believe this movie will be a great one to use as a springboard for discussing our faith. We too received an incredible gift of grace when Christ died for us "while we were yet sinners," and this gift compels us to "pay it forward" by sharing the Good News with others. So it seems natural to talk to others about this movie and what they thought of it, to see if they have ever been on the giving or receiving end of generosity and how it affected them... and then to also to talk about our experience of God's grace.

Date: Sat, 28 Oct 2000
From: crystal

Wow! I have never in my life seen a movie as deep and profound as Pay It Forward. I think one reason whiy I liked it so much is because it is real. It doesn't have the perfect "happily ever after" ending. And in between the good deeds, people still screw up. But the encouraging part is that his plan worked. In other words, no matter how young or uneducated or prosperous you are, you can still make a difference.

I just read the other reviews posted. I must say that I feel that "Gretchen" missed the whole point of the film. She claims that the most impossible idea is that an eleven year old can change the world. Whereas, she feels that elders are responsible and we should not expect children to be the gate openers. However, my perspective is somewhat the opposite.

Yes, adults are suppose to be role models for children and encourage them to strive for the best, but sometimes even adults need a little enliightment in the world, and who better to provide that than their pupils. In other words, chilldren are not being given the responsibility of changing the world; they are just giving back to the world, what the world has taught them. What good is a person who says that children are suppose to be encouraged when they don't even believe that someone that young could have the potential to make a difference.

Response: The good book says, "And a little child shall lead them." Thanks for your observations -David

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000
From: Jan

I saw this movie last night, and thought it would definitely provide some interesting discussions with non-believers. To begin with, no one can argue that putting Trevor's plan into action is a bad thing. Yes, there are sacrifices, and there are disappointments, but that is because of the fallen nature of man. This movie definitely shows the fallen nature. Even Trevor was saddened that he failed in helping his friend, Adam, not to get beaten up. He saw his own frailty and weakness. This is not a bad thing, to recognize our own limitations. The drug addict himself even reminded me of the passage in Romans, when Paul talk about not doing what he wants to do, and doing what he does not want to do. This character was sure he could lick the heroin, just by getting the step up, but his own sinfulness was too much for him to bear. At the same time, however, he could share an inkling of grace with another human being. I would recommend going to see this, as the ultimate act of kindness bestowed upon mankind was and will ever be the death of Christ on the cross. Fortunately, we are not REQUIRED to pay it forward, but how can we help but not to as we contemplate the grace given to us. Thanks, Jan

Response: I too thought the film was very realistic in its portrayal of human nature. -David

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000
From: Sonja

In the current film, ?Pay It Forward,? the lead character, Trevor McKinny, an 11-year-old living in Las Vegas, takes to heart a social studies assignment: ?Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action.? Trevor comes up with a plan he calls ?Pay It Forward,? a benevolent pyramid scheme in which one person helps three other people and then they - paying it forward - do the same for three more folks and so on. By ?help,? however, Trevor means more than just ?random acts of kindness,? like holding the door for someone or even traditional ?good deeds,? like helping an old lady across the street. In order for ?Pay It Forward? to work, an individual must do something ?really big? and must help someone in a way only they can.

Sound familiar? It should!

At the beginning of November, the church celebrates two ?feast days? - holidays of a sort - called ?All Saints Day? and ?All Souls Day.? On these days we remember those who have died in the faith and the witness they have given to the faith and to the redeeming love of God. Many Saints of the church are well known - St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis, etc. Other ?saints? are less well known - the ?saint? who brought you to church as a child, the ?saint? who spoke a word of love and encouragement to you in a time of need, the ?saint? who reached out to the poor and needy in our neighborhoods.

Often, we think of saints as models of a perfection which we cannot attain. I?d like to encourage you to think of the saints in a different way: as people who were ?paying it forward.? Ask any true ?saint? and I bet they?d tell you that the reason they live ?saintly? lives is not for their own credit or perfection, but for others. Ask them why they are so concerned about others, and I bet they?d reply that ?someone first was concerned about them.?

In the Christian tradition, that ?someone? ultimately is Jesus Christ, who through his life and death and resurrection began a gigantic ?Pay It Forward? project that changed and IS STILL changing the world we live in. Like Trevor?s plan suggests, Christ's action was not merely a ?random act of kindness? or a ?good deed.? Instead, Christ went further than the ordinary call of civility, entering into our lives and changing them fundamentally for the better and forever. That is what we in the church call ?redemption.?

The ?Saints? we celebrate in the church and the ?saints? we celebrate in our own communities are all part of that same plan, continuing to pay not only Christ's goodness - but Christ's redemption - forward to each generation. Jesus commanded his disciples to ?love one another as I have loved you.? Jesus loves each of us significantly and in a way only Jesus can. We are joined to that love through our baptism and are charged whenever and wherever we see the need for redemption to ?pay it forward.?

Response: How insightful. Thank you. And, yes, paying it forward is a true act of love by a living "saint."-David

Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000
From: Paul

I first found your site when exploring reviews of The Sixth Sense and was very impressed with your exegesis of it. Once again, with Pay it Forward, you have demonstrated the value of your perspective with objective observation of details that no other critic has noted.

In a comment to IMDB that I submitted yesterday, I compared and contrasted this film with two others.

I trust that you are familiar with the author C.S. Lewis, and probably with the film "Shadowlands." This shows the Oxford don and famous Christian apologist ambivalently fumbling towards the unfamiliar territory of love and marriage to a woman whose hard-drinking husband had left her and her son.

Perhaps you have also seen "The Man Without a Face", about a badly burn-scarred teacher turned hermit, and the boy whose own alcoholic father had deserted him, and who appeals to the teacher for help. Although the film left no clear sign of the teacher's Christian faith other than to show a sizeable crucifix over his bed, if you have also read the original novel, you know that he is a Catholic, no less devout for being matter-of-fact about it, and that an important scene of the story occurs in church.

In Pay it Forward, however, there is no evidence that any of the main characters is a practicing Christian, and the path of least resistance is to assume that they are not. I speculate either that the writer and director were equally ignorant of the church's millennia-old example of paying it forward, or that they knew but didn't want any needles nearby that would puncture their balloon.

But it is also possible, given the gestures towards portraying Trevor as a Christ figure, that they wanted viewers to ponder why, after such a long time, so many people in the world still have no idea that his project is already embodied in the Church Militant. Holy Baptism and Holy Orders are indeed big favors that a person cannot do for himself, and that the church has a mission to propagate. But beyond these not-entirely-tangible benefits, millions continue to encounter the Church as a school, a hospital, or a filling meal. If Trevor's helping a poor man is a good deed, then the church's helping millions of the poor, with no expectation of repayment, are also good deeds. Many charges are leveled against the church, including that it is a successful Ponzi scheme, but I have never yet heard it accused of being a bank, whereby a loan made must be repaid to the lender. Despite all this, the result remains a world in which people, even decent and well-disposed people like Trevor and his teacher, do not appear to know Christ or acknowledge the example of the church in their own ostensibly original good ideas.

Why is this? Part of the explanation is doubtless that people habitually take things for granted, bite the hands that feed them, and fail to give credit where credit is due. Nevertheless, churchmen must also examine themselves: do some of our own attitudes and tactics bring our Master into disrepute and inhibit His Great Commission? I would call a tendency to excessive individualism one of these obstacles, but your mileage may vary.

At any rate, the Church herself has provided us with a particularly appropriate opportunity in the liturgical year for doing just this on November 1, the Feast of All Saints, which is, aptly, just around the corner. This day is for giving thanks and meditating upon the chain of countless, and mostly anonymous, predecessors who have paid it forward by passing their faith down two millennia, so that we can enjoy it now. To quote Isaac Watts, "Our glorious Leader claims our praise for his own pattern given, while the long cloud of witnesses show the same path to heaven." How did they do it?

Response: How do they do it? The answer is obvious! Pay it forward. Thanks for your well thought out comments. You have a wonderful theological mind. And yes, Trevor is a Christ figure. -David

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2000
From: "Scott Senn"

I went to this movie with great expectations. I left feeling a little ripped off but after reflecting a bit I chastised myself for expecting too much from the world. This could have been a GREAT movie! The concept of sacrificing in a way that is "huge" and "hurtful to self" is the Golden Rule to be sure. But it is the way things were "payed forward" that was so gutwrenching. The movie sought to elevate too much that was clearly either against the law or highly immoral. The confusion of an 11yr. old is forgiveable, but the actions of certain adults is not. At other times, paying it forward was really paying it "backwards". If you return a favor to one who sent it, it would stop the pyramid from expanding. So I did not understand why the "pay-it-forward movement" seemed to have such a small momentum. It was very much confined to the major characters in the movie. No doubt, there will be some people who after seeing this movie will do great and sacrificial things for others and this, in turn, will benefit us all. In fact, I was watching an HBO special in which Kevin Spacey was describing an encounter with a woman who told him that she had "payed-it-forward" as well. And I have to admit that I was deeply moved to the point of tears at various points (as were many others). Do I think this movie will change the world? Not a chance. But it is a movie that will cause even the hardest of hearts to soften and that is never a bad thing.

Response: I have always believed that STORY is very different from Instructional How To Manuals. The story here speaks of placing value on others. It is a simple story and can not be taken as a literal-can-happen Instructional Manual. This story teaches us a way of living that can touch others at a profoundly deep level. -David

Subject: Pay It Forward Comments
Date: Sun, 22 Oct 2000
From: Liz Maryland

The premise of the movie is a good "good things" for three people and then they do good things for three more and so on (like that old shampoo commercial..."I told three people about it and they told three more"...sorry! couldn't help it!). However, all of the positive messages in the movie (perseverence, unconditional love, doing good works) was so obscured by the many bad things that kept happening. It was just so DARK and depressing over and over again. I guess that I was supposed to leave the movie feeling uplifted and encouraged that if I were to "pay it forward" it would make a difference. Everyone kept failing so much in the film, that it seemed to present more of a futile view of passing along good deeds. As if to say, "What's the point? Everyone's going to lapse back into their old ways anyway..."

I would have liked to have seen some reference to some "higher authority" or deeper, inner reason for paying it forward. The only connection to God that I heard was a song about angels at the end. The one nugget that I did glean from the movie was that you may never KNOW how your actions or words may affect other people (the characters were almost all clueless as to what they had done) and these can be much more far-reaching than you could ever imagine. It reinforces the idea that we should not be expecting a reward (or "pay back") for doing good...we should "Just Do It"!
Liz Maryland

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 2000
From: Coles

It was nice of you to untangle all the threads of this convoluted plot. It was also nice of you to be able to focus on the concept of doing good deeds, but this movie is so flawed that I wouldn't recommend sitting through it. Just do some good deeds instead. The plot is overblown, immorality is presented as redemptive, but what pushes this movie from the "not completely successful" category to the "creepy" category is that the only functional human being in the entire film is eleven years old. Maybe if you want to see this as some kind of allegory, that's okay, but if you actually happen to know any eleven year olds, the idea of shoving off all the responsibility of solving homelessness, substance abuse and poverty onto their shoulders another typical attitude of the "Me" generation. We thought about saving the world . . . but it was too hard. We give up. Maybe our kids will do it. I'm all for inspiring teens into action...but it's also our job to lead the way and smooth the way, not push them in front. Gretchen

PAY IT FORWARD ? 2000 Warner Bros.