A child challenged to change the world comes up with a plan. He will do three important favors for people who need them. Then, instead of allowing them to pay it back, he will ask each of them to “pay it forward,” doing three favors for other people, and asking them to do the same. One character describes it as a “Mother Theresa conga line.” The principle is the same as multi-level-marketing, except that instead of soap or vitamins, it’s “generosity between strangers” that is being passed on exponentially.
Trevor has every reason to believe that life is harsh and painful. His parents are alcoholics and his father is either absent or abusive. He walks into school every day through a metal detector. Outside his classroom window is an endless expanse of desert. And his mother works two jobs in a city filled with despair, Las Vegas.
But Eugene encourages his students to “backflip” the world into something better. He does not expect much — maybe a clean-up of some graffiti. But he gets Trevor’s utopian idea.
If that theme appeals to you and you’d like to see three of the finest actors ever put on film, then you are the audience for this movie. If it sounds syrupy, go see something else. As for me, I’m in the first category, and my heart was happily warmed and my tears happily jerked.
Trevor, the 7th grader who comes up with the idea, is played by Haley Joel Osment, nominated for an Oscar last year for his performance in “The Sixth Sense.” Again, he shows us an extraordinary child, wise and sensitive beyond his years because of what he has had to face, but still completely believeable as an 11-year-old. Helen Hunt is heartbreaking as Arlene, a recovering alcoholic with a history of loss and abuse. And Kevin Spacey is breathtaking in a role that is a departure from the tough and wily guys he played in “The Usual Suspects,” “Wiseguy,” “Swimming with the Sharks,” and “L.A. Confidential.” He plays middle school teacher Eugene Simonet, scarred inside and out. One of Trevor’s favors is to bring Eugene and Arlene together, though it turns out that is is not just to make them happier.
Arlene and Eugene put all of their effort into making sure they do not get hurt again until they learn that it is risking hurt that makes us alive. Trevor’s idea does not always work, but when it does, people are transformed, not by the favors others do for them as much as by the favors they do for the next people in the chain. We get a glimpse of its impact as the story is interwoven with scenes four months into the future, as a reporter tries to track down the source of the mysterious acts of generosity.
Parents should know that there is some strong language, and characters abuse alcohol and drugs, including heroin and marijuana. There are references to the most severe domestic abuse. There are some fights, one resulting in mortal injury. A character attempts suicide. Another shoots his gun, though no one is injured. There is some strong language. A character dies tragically. There are sexual references, including references to having to be drunk to have sex and there is a discreet sexual situation. Scenes take place in a tawdry Las Vegas setting with skimpy clothing and strippers. A character’s burn scars may be upsetting. Pre-teens and teen-agers may be especially concerned by the violence that occurs at a school, despite the metal-detectors kids walk through as they enter.
Families should talk about the pay it forward idea. Would it work? What favors would family members like to do? Why is “routine” so important to Eugene? Why do we see him ironing his shirt twice in the movie? Why do we see Eugene sitting at a student’s desk when he talks to Trevor? Why does Trevor say that “it has to be hard?” Families should also talk about Trevor’s comment that the most important thing is watching people, paying attention to things they may not even know they need. Some families will also want to dicuss whether there is a religious allusion in the death of one character.
Families who enjoy this movie will also like “Magnificent Obsession” and “Field of Dreams.”