Pay it Forward (2000)

December 12, 2000

For anyone with an ounce of idealism, or any fond memories of singing "Pass It On," Pay It Forward
offers some morally powerful moments, at least at the beginning. It
opens with a facially scarred teacher, Gene Simonet, directing his
students to come up with a plan to change the world. Simonet, as played
by Kevin Spacey, exudes some unusually dangerous vibrations in the
seventh-grade classroom. What he's seen of the world has given him a
cold intensity: he doesn't really expect his students to shake off their
adolescent lethargy, but he's got no energy for coddling them either.

Fresh-faced Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense)
takes him up on the challenge. Trevor proposes a chain letter of good
deeds. He'll do a good deed for three people (it has to be something
important and something hard, he says) and then instruct each recipient
that the way to pay him back is to "pay it forward"--to do good deeds
for three other people, who are instructed to pay it forward, and so on.
Trevor's classmates seem stunned by this vision of advancing altruism,
or perhaps by the fact that Trevor doesn't just blow off the assignment.

There's
a nice edge to the fact that an outbreak of compassion is regarded as
socially outrageous. When Trevor puts his idea into practice by inviting
a homeless man to sleep in his garage, his dissolute mother (Helen
Hunt), a waitress in a Las Vegas strip joint, thinks he's crazy and
heads off to school to scold Simonet. For a while, it looks like the
movie will use the "pay it forward" idea to examine the disruptive power
of compassion.

Hollywood tends to make children the repositories
of virtue in a messed-up world, and in this case Trevor not only shows
more wisdom than his parents (his abusive father, also an alcoholic,
returns briefly) but more maturity than any adult in Las Vegas. A graver
problem is that the movie ends up focusing on a domestic situation.
Trevor's idea of a good deed for Simonet and for his mother is to pair
them up. That way, his lonely teacher will find the companionship he
lacks, his alcoholic mom will get the solid man she needs, and Trevor
will get the stable household he desires. Trevor as matchmaker is cute,
but domestic cuteness is not what the movie should be aiming for.

Even
worse, the movie starts mythologizing the "pay it forward" scheme
before examining concrete acts of compassion. It's as if "paying it
forward" is really more interesting as a media event than as a moral
project.