This is a sentimental and emotionally convincing story about decency and change. It is not only about the possibility of being decent towards one's own kith and kin, or to completely untempting strangers (witness the rich businessman who hands over his Jaguar to a pushy hack), but also about the changes a well-disposed individual can make. Idealistic to its core, it's the kind of film that would have been built around James Stewart 50 years ago.
Asked by his social studies teacher Eugene (Kevin Spacey) to come up with a plan for fixing things he dislikes, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) invents the notion of 'pay it forward', which involves individuals performing three acts of kindness once they have received one each. In this way America will, of course, become a nice place. The plot progresses cleverly to a situation of supreme irony where Eugene's own neediness is exposed (his face and body are badly burned), and he yearns for Trevor's alcoholic but concerned mum (Helen Hunt), causing Trevor to become the teacher, having achieved wisdom rather quickly.
All three leads are first-rate. Oscar-winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, as well as Oscar-nominee Haley Joel Osment (star of "The Sixth Sense") are possessed of such depth that their individual inner conflicts are visible in every twitch. To their credit, neither Spacey nor Hunt give a fig about being image conscious, while Osment is quite mesmerising as he allows a river of complex emotions to run across his face for great stretches of the film.
It is hard for a film of this kind not to come across as manufactured at times, yet director Mimi Leder, whose work includes "Deep Impact" and "ER", is much more able than expected when it comes to 'what if?' fantasy.
Visit the official "Pay It Forward" website.
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