Popcorn and Inspiration: 'Pay It Forward': One Idea That Can Change the World


PG-13 | 2h 3min | Drama | 2000

A social studies school teacher in Las Vegas, Eugene (Kevin Spacey), challenges his seventh graders through an assignment on their first day back at school: Think up a plan that’ll make the world a better place.

Trevor McKinney, 11 (Haley Joel Osment), responds with a “Pay It Forward” plan that works like this. If someone helps you, find and help three others—as long as you fulfill three conditions. First, you’re not allowed to pay back the one who helps you, in cash or in-kind. Second, you must insist that those you help in turn find and help three others, thus paying it forward. Third, your help must make a big difference: For instance, it must seem like they can’t help themselves without someone stepping in.

Trevor McKinney's (Haley Joel Osment) idea takes an act of kindness to a whole new level in "Pay It Forward." (MovieStillsDB)
Trevor McKinney's (Haley Joel Osment) idea takes an act of kindness to a whole new level in "Pay It Forward." (MovieStillsDB)

What starts out as an apparently impractical idea becomes a national movement, sweeping thousands into its embrace. Trevor’s childlike vision of the healing power of random acts of kindness becomes a miraculously self-fulfilling reality.

Are school kids short of fabulous ideas? No way. Why, then, does Trevor’s idea strike Eugene as unique? It’s the first he’s heard of an idea that requires, as he says, an “extreme act of faith in the goodness of people.”

Trevor’s afraid that his mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), will reunite with her abusive, alcoholic ex, Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi). As a single mom, juggling two jobs to get by, Arlene’s at the end of her tether, so, in his childlike belief that he can change her world, Trevor fixes a surprise romantic-date for Arlene, with a man he knows to be caring: Eugene.

Eugene, however, has trouble accepting how anyone could find him lovable. He has horrible scars all over from being burnt, including on his face and chest, and hides behind his little routines in his little apartment, tellingly called “The Oasis.” He hopes that if he keeps to himself, he won’t be hurt more than he already has been; his scars are physical but even more so, psychological.

Eugene Signoret (Kevin Spacey, L) talks with Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) about the boy's idea to make a difference in the world. (MovieStillsDB)
Eugene Signoret (Kevin Spacey, L) talks with Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) about the boy's idea to make a difference in the world. (MovieStillsDB)
In spite of the fears in Eugene’s head, the kids at school admire him. He reminds them that their lateness and tardiness implies a lack of respect for themselves and for others. He tells them not to be stuck on themselves (what their upbringing or social status makes them) but to embrace the idea of “the possible.” They can change if only they put their minds to it. They needn’t be meek victims of circumstance.

The Power of Kindness

Based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, the film asks: Can a random act of kindness, even one by a nameless individual, resonate beyond the act itself, and even beyond the individual?

In speeches, Hyde has recounted how she stumbled upon the idea. She was driving home at night in Echo Park, Los Angeles, when her car mysteriously stalled, then caught fire.

Out of nowhere two men, strangers, showed up. They’d probably seen the fire, pulled over, and grabbed a blanket out of their trunk. Soon they were running toward her car. One man popped the hood. The other, Hyde explains, “leaned his whole upper body into my flaming engine compartment and put the fire out by hand with the blanket.”

Fire department corps arrived but in the melee the two men had quietly disappeared, Hyde didn’t even get to thank them. She couldn’t fathom how strangers could risk their lives that way. It got her thinking about helping strangers who couldn’t return the favor, and eventually led to her novel.

Like most of director Mimi Leder’s films, this one has her “lucky charm” family in front and behind the scenes: Her husband Gary Werntz as a lawyer, her daughter Hannah as an asthmatic patient, and her sister Geraldine as casting director.

In interviews, Leder has said that she chose Las Vegas as her film location because it offered impossible contrasts, worlds that would “otherwise never meet” such as high-end hotels next to homeless encampments. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton uses the vastness of Vegas to capture the desolation of those who are destitute, living on the fringes of society. Most of the school kids on screen are non-actors from Vegas.

Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) and (Eugene Signoret) get to know each other, in "Pay It Forward." (MovieStillsDB)
Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) and (Eugene Signoret) get to know each other, in "Pay It Forward." (MovieStillsDB)

Leder didn’t want Eugene’s burns to dominate. His makeup was heavy and required hours of work, but she kept it muted. Sure, he faces reactions of shock and horror whenever he meets someone new. But Leder wanted audiences to quickly go beyond that, to appreciate the caring person beneath that disfigurement.

Thomas Newman’s score is superb, upbeat one moment, brooding the next, soaring moments after. The joyous track “Possibility” with its pounding piano notes, is the most winning, but “One Kiss,” “I Forgive You,” and “Wasted Air” are touching, too.

Osment, who was, in fact, 11-years-old at the time (he turned 12 on the last day of shooting), performs here on par with accomplished adult actors, Hunt and Spacey. He’s the magnet holding the subplots together. You feel his pain, his helplessness, his longing. When Leder’s camera is on him, she rarely cuts away; he’s that impressive.

The film is nowhere near as melodramatic or saccharine as some critics say it is, and isn’t shy of showing how unthinking real-life people are. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that even those we pull out from a pit of despair have trouble staying out; some slip back in, repeatedly. Trevor discovers that first-hand.

Yet, when he’s looking at the camera (at us), he hopes that instead of seeing that as failure and giving up, we’ll double down because we never know when someone’s ready to slip back.

In one scene Trevor pleads for Eugene’s help because Arlene seems condemned to stay a victim, trapped with Ricky. Eugene’s adamant; he’s done all he can.

Trevor (despairingly): “You don’t care!”

Eugene (pained): “Yes I do. I will always care. About you, always.”

Trevor (regretfully): “Yeah, you’re my teacher, they pay you to.”

Instantly, Eugene realizes the difference he can make by paying it forward, and the price he pays when he allows fear to hold him back.
‘Pay It Forward’ Director: Mimi Leder Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi, Angie Dickinson MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes Release Date: Oct. 20, 2000 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz