Based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde, the film stars Kevin Spacey as social studies teacher Eugene Simonet, Helen Hunt as single-mother Arlene McKinney, and the boy who charmed us in "The Sixth Sense," Haley Joel Osment, as 11 year-old Trevor McKinney.
Set in Las Vegas, where no one lives far from the desert, the movie is full of characters who are also living on the edge of a spiritual desert. Eugene has been suppressing a past trauma-which he literally wears on his terribly scarred face-by pouring all of his energy into teaching. His students are his only family. Arlene, addicted to alcohol, has been trying to raise her son and make ends meet by working two jobs since her abusive, drug-addled husband abandoned her and Trevor, who, alone most of the time, has little chance to enjoy childhood. Indeed, he often acts as the parent, searching for and emptying liquor bottles his mother hides throughout the house.
The movie starts with a S.W.A.T. team scene out of any of Leder's action films. A reporter's car is destroyed in the melee, and a stranger comes up and hands him the keys to his expensive car, no strings attached. This sets the incredulous reporter off on a cross-continental trek to find out why a stranger would present him with such a lavish gift. This brings us to Trevor, and his campaign, inspired by a civics-class assignment, to build a pyramid scheme of love and charity: do someone a good turn, and have them do a good turn for three other people: The Golden Rule in triplicate.
To carry out his plan, Trevor has to win over his mom, and Eugene, who started it all with his classroom assignment, comes in for a tongue-lashing by Arlene. Despite good intentions, Trevor also finds that "fixing" people is fraught with difficulties. People he tries to help fall back into their bad ways, and his no-good dad shows up asking for redemption. Others simply prefer not to accept help.
But if charity is a tougher cross to bear than Trevor imagines, the film also suggests that there is Easter. The conclusion is the kind of irresistible, inspiring uplift that will have exiting audiences humming "The Hallelujah Chorus." At my screening, a roomful of jaded critics broke into applause as the end credits rolled!
The film is rated PG-13, due to some very rough language midway in the film, and a frank, almost nude love scene between Arlene and Eugene. It comes late in the film that I was already congratulating the filmmakers on their restraint, before seeing that Hollywood's propensity for showing premarital sex as an answer to everyone's prayers won out: Trevor is improbably shown rejoicing when he sees his mother and teacher sharing the same bed the morning after. If the film were intended solely for an adult audience, I might have cheered along with Trevor, but it is not. Instead, it sends mixed signals in what is an otherwise perfect family film. Parents, especially those of younger children, should see the film first before taking their offspring. Neither of the "flaws" is enough to spoil the wonderful message of the film, but they do need some explaining for young viewers.
As in the biblical book of Esther, there is no God-talk in Pay It Forward, but people of faith will easily see the hand of God in the story. And maybe viewers will be moved to act on the film's message. After seeing the film, you might buy three tickets and pass them on to three other people.