Directed by Mimi Leder, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Angie Dickinson, James Caviezel and Jon Bon Jovi.
It's every kid's idea of a nightmare school assignment - "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action". The task is set by social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) to a chorus of groans from his 7th Grade class, but not from Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment). With an innocent but determined belief in the goodness of others, young Trevor comes up with a gem of a project. Pay It Forward means you help someone with something they cannot do themselves, they in turn must help three other people and as each person helps three others, the concept grows and expands to make the world a better place. It's a more positive version of paying someone back, simple eh?
12-year-old Osment's furrowed brow sincerity results in a compelling performance as he holds his own alongside Academy Award winners Spacey and Hunt. Hunt plays the recovering alcoholic single mom holding down two jobs, Spacey is the teacher obsessed with order and sporting facial scars of mysterious origin. Two brief appearances by Jon Bon Jovi as Trevor's absent alcoholic father are surprisingly farcical. But the resulting giggles are silenced by Trevor's increasing disillusionment with his school project and the world in general.
Osment wins all the attention here but instead of focussing on his character, three different narratives emerge. The film begins by following the Pay It Forward "movement" across the states through a journalist's journey to pinpoint the origin of the concept, it moves through an exploration of Trevor's relationship with his mother and the world around him, and ends as a love story with Trevor attempting to pair off his mother and his teacher as one of his good deeds. Unfortunately what started as an interesting idea for a film descends into Hollywood schmaltz that will leave the less cynical among us reaching for the tissues. Pay It Forward? A bit like Trevor's idea to change the world, the concept works better than the reality.