By Justin Lee
Do someone a favour. Keep in mind that it has to be something that would really help the person and that they normally could not do it on their own. In return, that person must "pay it forward" and do the same for three other people.
This is the premise of Pay It Forward, a film that could have potentially played out like another re-run of Full House, complete with enough nausea-inducing "awww’s" from the studio audience to accompany the Olsen twins past their pre-pubescent years. Fortunately, Pay It Forward, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name, is a film that remarkably displays a kind of courage and heart that is sorely lacking in mainstream Hollywood films, without the slightest threat of sounding like some cheesy Hallmark greeting.
The movie opens with a hostage situation where a desperate man is holding a woman at gunpoint from the bedroom window of a suburban home. After the fleeing madman totals his car, a reporter is left stranded in the rain without transportation. Then a mysterious man appears out of thin air and offers the reporter his brand-new Jaguar, no strings-attached. The reporter is reluctant at first to accept the gift, but eventually succumbs and is so intrigued by the man’s generosity that he is prompted to investigate the reasoning behind it all for a feature story.
Meanwhile, 11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) begins his first day of school where his social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), gives an unorthodox and seemingly-impossible, extra-credit assignment that challenges the class of seventh graders to do something to change the world.
Trevor comes up with the "pay it forward" concept and soon attempts to aid three people. First, he invites a homeless drug-addict into his home, unbeknownst to his mother (Helen Hunt) and tries his best to get him back on his feet. Trevor then decides to help his own teacher, playing matchmaker to the horribly scarred Eugene Simonet and his own alcoholic mother. Finally, he tries to help his friend from being used as a punching-bag by a group of bullies at school. While the film centers on Trevor, his mother and his teacher, it simultaneously follows the people affected by "pay it forward" and ultimately connects their stories to one another.
Pay It Forward is a rare look at optimism in our increasingly cynical world; whether this idea of making the world a better place, one person at a time, is a realistic one or not isn’t the point of the film. Instead, the film draws its themes from ideas first introduced by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, who argued that all humans were good by nature.
Without a doubt expect another Oscar nomination for both Spacey and Osment; the latter demonstrates just why he is considered one of the most respected young actors of his time. Hunt portrays Arlene McKinney with the admirable vulnerability of a woman who is struggling to prevent herself from further ruining her life, as well as her son’s.
The film will inevitably be compared to the classic It’s A Wonderful Life because of the central message that one person can make a significant impact on the world. However, unlike It’s A Wonderful Life, Pay It Forward is more of an empowering film than it is a feel-good movie. Here the film’s issues are not fully resolved in the end and the film’s conclusion is tragically bittersweet. Ultimately, the audience leaves the theater with an inspiring sense of optimism and suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bad after all.