Faith Review – Pay It Forward (2000)
Film Title: Pay It Forward
Director(s): Mimi Leder
- TV series: Luck, Smash, Shameless, Heavenly, Human Target, ER, Vanished, Related, The West Wing, Jonny Zero, John Doe, The Beast, Midnight Caller, The Bronx Zoo, Crime Story, A Year in the Life, L.A. Law
- TV movie: Heavenly, The Quinn-tuplets, U.S. Attorney, The Innocent, Baby Brokers, House of Secrets, Rio Shannon, There Was a Little Boy, Marked for Murder, Woman with a Past, China Beach, Sisters, Nightingales
- Movies: I Thick as Thieves, Pay It Forward, Sentimental Journey, Deep Impact, The Peacemaker, A Little Piece of Heaven
Original release form/venue: theaters
Current Availability and formats: NetFlix
Genre: Drama / Romance
- Atmosphere – the overall feeling of the movie is one of brokenness and unhappiness
- Plot –
Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is 7th grader with an alcoholic mom, Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) who pole dances at a nightclub and absentee father (Jon Bon Jovi) who when he is home is abusive. There is brokenness all around with his family and within his community. His maternal grandmother (Angie Dickinson) is a homeless alcoholic who has been cut off by her daughter. There is a homeless community that he passes while riding his bike. Even his teacher, Eugene Simonet played by Kevin Spacey is badly scarred both physically and emotionally by abuse from his own father.
The movie is a flashback in that the opening scene we see an incredible act of generosity as an owner of a Jaguar gives his keys to a reporter (a complete stranger) whose car has just damaged by a criminal escaping the police. The owner calls it “generosity between two strangers” and only requests that he “Pay It Forward”. The scene flashes back to four months earlier on the first day of school with Trevor sitting in Mr. Simonet’s 7th grade social studies class. Mr. Simonet initially has back to the class and the camera while writing on the board. When he spins around, the class stares in silence as they see the significant scars that cover his face. Mr. Simonet quickly gets their attention with his questioning regarding their relationship to the world.
Upon being asked “what does the world expect of you?”, Trevor responds “nothing” to which the teacher wholeheartedly agrees. The teacher continues the dialogue and assigns them an extra credit assignment to think of an idea to change the world and put it in action. Trevor challenges him by asking what he had ever done to change the world. Mr. Simonet responds that he sleeps, eats, shows up, and “pass the buck to you”. The kids are intrigued especially Trevor who lives in brokenness. He rides his bike by a homeless community and stops to observe. While his mom works late, Trevor allows a homeless man (Jerry) to sleep in the garage. When Arlene finds a sleeping Trevor in his bed she slips around looking for hidden vodka bottles. When Jerry comes into take a shower, Arlene is frightened and throws him out. When Arlene discovers that the homeless man is part of Trevor’s school assignment she heads to school to have it out with Eugene. In a heated exchange, Eugene tells Arlene that she needs to talk to her son and that he doesn’t “exactly expect them to change the world” and that he is just trying to “get them to think”. She angrily asks him if he thinks he can “do whatever you want because your face is messed up.”
In a scene that flashes forward again, the reporter is questioning the Jaguar owner as to why he was so generous. He shares that he was “paying it forward” as a man had forcibly (shoots a gun) made the ER staff assist his daughter when she was struggling desperately with asthma. The story is interwoven between the reporter’s pursuit for information and Trevor’s pursuit of his idea which is to repay kindness not to the person who showed kindness but to three others and advise them to pay it forward. Trevor indicates that it can’t be something easy and must be really big and really significant. Unmerited grace?
Jerry partially pays Trevor’s generosity forward by fixing Arlene’s broken truck. He tells Arlene that Trevor gave him enough money to get clothes and shoes and as a result he was able to get a job at a hotel along with a room. He talks about the pain of climbing into that first dumpster and pulling newspapers over him to keep warm. Trevor had given him a “leg up” and he wasn’t allowed to pay it back so he was paying it forward. The idea is to help three people in significant ways that would in turn help three people each. His classmates thought it was an overly utopian idea and Trevor responds that maybe everything wouldn’t “suck” if everyone paid it forward.
It soon becomes apparent that Trevor has added Eugene to his list and seeks to unite the teacher with his mom. When the pair discover his plan their night together ends and Arlene seeks out her son. An argument ensues and more brokenness is aired regarding Trevor, his father, and his mother’s alcoholism. After running away, Eugene and Arlene find Trevor at a bus station where a man appears to be trying to abduct him. Eugene beats on the abductor and mom comes clean about her issues and asks Trevor to stay and help her fight her addiction. From this moment on, the healing process begins for Arlene as well as for her relationship with Trevor.
In the parallel story, the reporter traces lives changed as a result of Trevor’s idea working backward from the Jaguar owner through a criminal and eventually to an alcoholic homeless lady who turns out Trevor’s maternal grandmother. Each has their own story of how they were helped by someone influenced by Trevor. At the same time, Trevor feels as though his plan and he himself is a failure. The homeless man (Jerry) that he tried to help had relapsed into drugs. Things are not working out between his mom and his teacher. Finally he was too scared to help his friend Adam (his third beneficiary) who was being bullied.
Meanwhile the reporter is finding out that the idea is working and major cities around the US are reporting that sacrificial love is being extended across the nation. Jerry saves a lady from committing suicide and Arlene and Eugene grow closer while Eugene shares the source of his pain. His own abusive father had set him on fire. Eugene described that his dad’s “eyes were filled with intense satisfaction”. After Arlene briefly takes back her husband (Jon Bon Jovi, who soon resorts to his abusive ways), Arlene goes to Trevor and admits that she made a mistake to which he responds, “Everyone makes mistakes.”
In an especially engaging scene, Trevor also becomes the teacher to Eugene. He asks Eugene if he will pay it forward and give his mother another chance after she had taken her husband back briefly. Eugene says that he will pay it forward but can’t give her another chance. Trevor then schools Eugene on forgiveness and second chances and the camera shows Eugene in the student’s chair. The student had become the teacher. Through the course of events Arlene and her mother reunite. Arlene tells her that she forgives her for allowing her boyfriends to molest her when she was drunk. As we see these relationships being healed, Trevor is still unaware of his idea’s impact. He believes some people are used to things the way they are and they just give up.
Trevor gets another opportunity to protect his friend Adam from the bullies. He runs over the bigger boys with his bike and in a scuffle he is stabbed. While learning about Trevor’s death, we hear of the success of Pay It Forward in San Francisco, Phoenix, and LA. In the closing scene, we see many of the people healed through his plan at his vigil. When we get a look at the number of cars lined up, we get a sense of the broad scale impact that he has made.
- Structure – two stories unfold as two distinct time periods (separated by 4 months). The later story is as actually introduced in the first scene and the earlier story is introduced shortly thereafter.
Film Language elements:
- Pacing – story seems to progress at a moderate pace.
- Acting – very good; strong cast
- Setting – Las Vegas
- Images – lots of shots of homeless and broken people
Audience/Cultural Context elements: probably targeted to adults who are real people with real problems
Theology is found: This is one of those movies that can be discussed theologically as some of the references would be obvious for many Christians but not so obvious for the less astute Christian or non-Christian. The story contains themes of brokenness, call, purpose, faith, grace, mercy, truth, and sacrificial love.
Theological Themes for Conversation:
Although it is always difficult for me personally to draw comparisons to Christ, Trevor is a Christ-like figure. Trevor had a tremendous impact on his world, initiated healing in a number of broken people, and died saving his friend Adam (humankind).
Suggested type of conversation:
- Call & Purpose: What does God expect of us?
- Faith: The movie would seem to indicate that one must step out in the faith that there is goodness in people. What kind of faith would be required to make the “Pay it forward” model work?
- Truth: A critical turning point in the relationship between Trevor and his mom is when Arlene admits that she has a drinking problem. Why do you think this a significant moment? Why is critical, honest self-assessment important in the life of a Christian?
- Sacrificial love: What does it mean to show sacrificial love for someone?
- Grace: Has anyone extended grace to you? Have you ever extended grace to someone else? What made it grace?
- Healing: What are key prerequisites to the healing process?
- Do you see any biblical parallels between Trevor and Christ?
- Is there any significance in the friend that Trevor saved was named Adam?
Recommended ways to view and engage the film: I would show the entire movie. It is a masterful job of interweaving to separate but yet connected stories. The movie is NOT very predictable and does a great job of identifying brokenness and healing.
Concluding or summary remarks:
- Outstanding movie that would attract both secular and Christian audiences.