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by: James Berardinelli

Pay It Forward couldn't have more obvious aspirations if the filmmakers announced them. Featuring a top-notch cast; an adept script that meshes tragedy, light comedy, romance, and melodrama; and the kind of overall optimism that is a perfect tonic for the ever-burgeoning national cynicism, Pay It Forward strikes many of the same chords played by Oscar contenders from It's a Wonderful Life to Forrest Gump. Call it the anti-American Beauty. Movies made with the full intention of shining during the autumn Academy Awards selection season often come across as graceless, lumbering creatures - disjointed messes that fall victim to their own pomposity and presumptuousness. Not so with Pay It Forward, which successfully avoids most of the obvious traps, resulting a final product that is both affecting and effective.

The premise is enough to get our attention; the characters keep it. Things start out simply enough: it's the first day of school for seventh grader Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), who finds himself face-to-face with the realities of middle school in Las Vegas - including metal detectors and bullies who find ways to sneak knives past the security checkpoints. Trevor's social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), is a challenging and unconventional sort of educator, and it isn't only the burn marks on his face that make him different - he doesn't just want his pupils to learn places and dates, he wants to prepare them to face life. "What does the world mean to you?" he asks. "What does the world expect of you?" In Trevor's case, the answers aren't positive ones - his mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is an alcoholic who works two jobs to pay the bills then drinks like a fish when she thinks no one is looking, and his father (Jon Bon Jovi) has long since split. Yet when Mr. Simonet offers his students an extra-credit project, "Think of an idea to change our world - and put it into action," Trevor attacks it with all the vigor he can muster. The result is something he calls "Pay It Forward."

The idea is more profound than one might normally expect from a child. Trevor will perform three acts of unsolicited kindness with the only requirement being that each recipient of his goodwill must "pay it forward" to three other people. And so on, and so on, and so on... (Like in the hair care commercial.) It's a practical application of karma, and Mr. Simonet is impressed, even as he wonders whether it's an "overly utopian idea." Nevertheless, Trevor gets to work, setting his sights first on a homeless man (James Caviezel), whom he invites inside for a meal and a place to sleep. His second target is Mr. Simonet, a lonely man Trevor thinks would make a perfect companion for his mother. But, as Trevor learns, kindness and the best intentions are not always enough.

The film has a split focus, interweaving time lines to tell both Trevor's story and that of the movement he founds. The primary branch of Pay It Forward is a chronological account of how the 11 year-old conceives of, develops, and attempts to implement his radical idea. The rest of the movie is set four months in the future and follows the investigation of a reporter (Jay Mohr) into the growing phenomenon. He pursues a trail that leads from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, encountering various adherents to the Pay it Forward philosophy. Eventually, as the movie nears its conclusion, the first time frame catches up with the second and they merge.

The belief that humanity can be redeemed is not a popular notion these days, especially considering the hundreds of atrocities that are repeated every day all across the globe. Indeed, some of the most powerful motion pictures being crafted are those that shine a light into these dark corners, exposing the festering corruption that often goes unnoticed. This makes it all the more remarkable that a movie like Pay It Forward can work.


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