Imagine you're despairing over a major problem in your life, and someone comes along and solves it for you, relatively unconditionally. All you have to do is "pay it forward", i.e., do a similarly big favour to three others. Would you do it?
That's the premise behind Pay it Forward, an overly sentimental film with some provocative ideas. The concept originates when Eugene "be careful with that axe" Simonet (Kevin Space) challenges his Seventh grade class to come up with an assignment to change the world. Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) comes up with the pay-it-forward concept and first decides to help a homeless heroin addict get back on his feet, then help Eugene and his mother (Helen Hunt) get together (which really makes for two favours), and then help his friend who's being pushed around by bullies in school. This "movement" spreads relatively unnoticed until a reporter in Los Angeles who loses his car is handed a brand new Jaguar and tracks down the source of this favour chain.
With a stellar cast consisting of Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley "I see dead people" Osment, the movie works pretty well under Mimi Leder's direction. The southern California/Nevada cinematography is done well. The dialogue is the weakest aspect of the film and is a bit hackneyed at times. More than the primary plot itself, the various underlying subtexts involving domestic abuse and alcoholism are interesting.
The concept of pay-it-forward is how most of human society works to the extent it does (some of it has even been institutionalised in the form of religion and government). The problem is that the notion is simply not idealistic enough. Performing three big favours just does not cut it. Not only does there need to be a significantly larger amount of favours done through the course of one's life, but the more important thing is that people don't do negative or harmful things to others to an equally large degree. Doing three big favours is pointless if you've done more harm than any favour can repay. A better (and much more idealistic) concept would be to live life without doing any harm to others (which also would not be adequate, but would be much more effective than a three-favour scheme).
What Pay it Forward really illustrates is that it is harmful to oneself and to others to be apathetic towards other people's problems. However, to maximise the balance of doing good to others and not doing harm, one also has to choose their battles wisely. This doesn't mean inaction, as much as realising that certain solutions simply don't work. For example, using violence as a solution never works since violence always begets violence ("what's good for the goose is good for the gander"). On that note, Pay it Forward also throws in a message about school violence.
Pay it Forward is a thought-provoking movie that definitely could've achieved loftier and mightier goals if it were a bit more rigourous. As it stands, it'll warm the cockles of peoples' hearts, but I'd wager that the feeling won't last for too long. I recommend checking it out during a matinee.