Movie Review: Pay it Forward (2000)

Inspirational tale of cosmic cooperation __ 8/10

Pay it ForwardTrevor: Were you just being nice?
Eugene: About what?
Trevor: About my idea. Do you think it’s good, or were you just being teachery?
Eugene: “Teachery”?
Trevor: Bullshitting.
Eugene: Do I strike you as someone falsely nice?
Trevor: No. You’re not even really all that nice.

Directed by Mimi Leder
Book Catherine Ryan Hyde
Screenplay Leslie Dixon

Kevin Spacey … Eugene Simonet
Helen Hunt … Arlene McKinney
Haley Joel Osment … Trevor McKinney
Jay Mohr … Chris Chandler
James Caviezel … Jerry
Jon Bon Jovi … Ricky McKinney
Angie Dickinson … Grace
David Ramsey … Sidney Parker
Gary Werntz … Mr. Thorsen

The year is 2000, and Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt are at the top of their games—he has earned the Oscar for American Beauty (1999) and she for As Good as it Gets (1997). Great actors like these—not to mention Haley Joel Osment, James Caviezel, and, yes, Angie Dickinson—make this an extraordinary movie, raising it to the level of potential spiritual breakthru.

We’re set in a semi-middleclass burb of Las Vegas, Nevada, at the local junior high school, seventh grade social studies class taught by a Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey). The kids are 11 years old, an age—as an early Simonet-led discussion would have it—where “nothing is expected of them.” Simonet is a bit pedantic, though refreshingly focused on good vocabulary and sound English, yet feels a genuine bond for his charges. He’s also idealistic and conveys his hopes in an extra-credit assignment written on the blackboard the first day:

Think of something to change the world and put it into action.

Wow, the kids are thinking, that’s actually expecting something of them, perhaps too much. Little Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is taken aback initially, just as the rest of the class. But as a product of a broken home, where his wife-beating, alcoholic father has left his struggling, alcoholic mother Arlene (Helen Hunt), Trevor becomes fond of this strange new teacher who cares enough about him to want to see great things. The kid is sensitive, impressionable, and caring; he first tries to help out a local burned-out bum, Jerry (James Caviezel). This leads to some naturally humorous scenes early on, where we discover the issues the child has with his mother’s drinking… how she still sneaks for her addiction.

So we get a first-hand notion of what a kid like Trevor might do in the context of wanting to bring some love and purpose into his young life. We almost see the little wheels turning inside his noggin as he comes to a Grand Solution to Mr. Simonet’s assignment. [Since the title of the movie gives away the idea, I don’t consider this a spoiler alert situation.] After a few weeks, Trevor shares his “Pay it Forward” inspiration with the class:

What you do is perform a deliberate good deed for three people. It must be a substantial benefit that either helps the recipient climb out of a pit of despair—such as Jerry’s heroin-addicted homelessness—or provides them a substantial lift in material or spiritual quality of life. It has to be done in a true spirit of giving, in which you genuinely connect with what the other person wants or needs… nothing done for show or to gratify your own ego. Also, the recipient must agree to pay it forward in the same manner. That is, perform a deliberate good deed for three people. Even if the chain is broken in a few spots, Trevor reasons, after a relatively small number of cycles millions of people benefit. World changed. Assignment done.

You can do the exponentiation. If you take 3 to the 15th power, that equals 14,348,907. Figuring on a 2/3 efficiency of success, that means 15 cycles of giving yields substantial “get back on your feet or move far forward” benefits to 10 million souls. The meme[1] saturates the entire population of Earth in about 22 cycles!

Back to the story, the authors and director do a fine job of integrating the mechanism of good works with the lives of the principal characters. Mr. Simonet has suffered quite a serious burning incident that leaves his face scarred; there’s a deeper story of hurt behind that, too. As we have seen, the mother suffers from bottleitis. Trevor has all these family issues that weigh on him heavily.

The movie is a great testament to how sensitive children are to the slightest rejection or energy stealings—or approval—of those in authority. [Becoming aware of this sensitivity in others—I have come across harshly to others through much of my adult life (mostly unintentionally)—is a discovery this movie enhances for me. Think cats. Know they have extremely sensitive hearing. Be gentle and speak softly… ya big lunk. Or dogs. A man can make or break a dog’s heart. If you can pay it forward with nonhuman sentient creatures, you can pay it forward anywhere.]

Further, the screenplay, and presumably the book, give the story with flashbacks and inclusion of what constitutes actual plot: namely, the attempt by a reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), who has himself received a pay-it-forward favor, to discover the source of the idea. Actually, I find the plot to be a wholly inventive method for connecting realistic people to a healthful idea. I won’t comment on anything else that may give away the denouement and resolution.


I haven’t done reviews by request, so consider this the first. Ms. Robingale Masters of Intentional Journey fame[2] mentioned that the movie would be a fine one to illustrate the incredible power of ‘Thinking Outside the Box.’ She was the one who introduced me to the terms Old Paradigm and New Paradigm, which I’m sure have different meanings the further left or right one goes in one’s brain. [You can look up left brain and right brain on the Web, but colloquially most men are left-brain oriented (science, math, engineering, directions) while most women are right-brain oriented (language, intuition, compassion, nurturing). And as the old man used to say, “It takes two to tango.”] From my political perspective, Old Paradigm is all things aggression and New Paradigm in all things nonaggression. It’s time to move forward, partly by ‘paying it forward.’

What could be more apropos in our day and age of runaway Old Paradigm evils (which truly manifest the last gasp of desperate men afflicted with the terminal Power Sickness disease)? Note that quite a few Pay it Forward organizations have blossomed, as seen on the Web. I can see a lot of synergy between the spreading of the Sacred Nonaggression Principle in society and “paying it forward.” Perhaps the freedom movement, or some organization in the freedom movement, can implement a charity focused on the pay-it-forward meme. We humans truly have unlimited spiritual potential!


[1] A meme is a piece of self-replicating information, an analog to a gene. For example, the meme that “it’s just not cool to smoke indoors” was more responsible for the recent habits of healthful behavior in the office environment than any government law (which merely serves to codify what people have already chosen, yet also to give atavistic power to unimaginative state thugs).

[2] Perhaps not fame as of this five minutes, but Robin is a leading “questor” in what I call the spiritual community. I like to think we are allies in a common consciousness-raising cause, breakthrough being just around the corner.


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