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When grade seven social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) challenges his class to think of a way to change the world and put it into action, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) takes the assignment to heart more than any prior student.
With his separated mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) struggling with alcohol addiction, and working as a waitress in a Las Vegas strip club and a casino change girl, Trevor would have good justification to be hopeless himself. Contrary to his circumstance, he devises a plan called "pay it forward"--pick three people, do something good for them they can't do themselves, and ask them to do the same for three others.
His first target is a homeless man for whom he provides food and a shower. His second aim is to find companionship for Mr. Simonet (a burn victim with emotional scars that match those on his face) and perhaps help his mother as well. Finally, Trevor vows to protect a young boy from some school bullies.
As Trevor's plan spreads, more characters join the story, and we glimpse how paying it forward is changing the world. But from Trevor's perspective, his idea seems doomed after discovering the homeless man still fighting drugs, the relationship between Mr. Simonet and his mother heading nowhere, and the unrelenting bullies attacking his classmate.
In keeping with the lifestyles portrayed, rough characters and Trevor frequently use moderate profanities, a theft and stabbing occur, a short sexual encounter without nudity is included, and barely clad dancers are the backdrop of a scene with Arlene in her skimpy waitress outfit sitting on a man's lap.
Yet, while keeping these content concerns in mind, I found Pay It Forward to be an incredibly positive and motivating movie for teens that teaches important principles of forgiveness and not letting past circumstances restrict your ability to move forward in life. It's also a beautiful demonstration of how putting a simple idea into practice can change the world.
By no means a "light" movie, parents will need to carefully decide if Pay It Forward's message justifies the content.
Pay It Forward is rated PG-13: for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence.
Cast: Helen Hunt Kevin Spacey Haley Joel Osment
Studio: 2000 Warner Brothers