Pay It Forward (film)

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Pay It Forward
Pay it forward ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMimi Leder
Produced by
Screenplay byLeslie Dixon
Based onPay It Forward
by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Music byThomas Newman
CinematographyOliver Stapleton
Edited byDavid Rosenbloom
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • October 20, 2000 (2000-10-20)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$40 million
Box office$55.7 million[1]

Pay It Forward is a 2000 American romantic drama film directed by Mimi Leder. The film is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It is set in Las Vegas, and it chronicles 12-year-old Trevor McKinney's launch of a goodwill movement known as "pay it forward". It stars Haley Joel Osment as Trevor, Helen Hunt as his alcoholic single mother Arlene McKinney, and Kevin Spacey as his physically and emotionally scarred social studies teacher Eugene Simonet.

The film was released on October 20, 2000 to mixed reviews, with most critics praising the acting, writing, music and cinematography but criticizing the story and accusing it of excessive emotional manipulation, particularly in its ending.


Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) begins 7th grade in Las Vegas, Nevada. His social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) gives the class an assignment to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor's plan is a charitable program based on the networking of good deeds. He calls his plan "pay it forward", which means the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying the favor back. However, it needs to be a major favor that the recipient cannot complete themselves.

Trevor does a favor for three people, asking each of them to "pay the favor forward" by doing favors for three other people, and so on, along a branching tree of good deeds. His first good deed is to let a homeless man named Jerry (Jim Caviezel) live in his garage, and Jerry pays the favor forward by doing car repairs for Trevor's mother. Trevor's efforts appear to fail when Jerry relapses into drug addiction, but Jerry pays his debt forward later by talking to a suicidal woman, who is about to jump off a bridge.

Meanwhile, Trevor's mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) confronts Eugene about Trevor's project after discovering Jerry in their house. Trevor then selects Eugene as his next "pay it forward" target and tricks Eugene and Arlene into a romantic dinner date. This also appears to fail until Trevor and Arlene argue about her love for Ricky, her alcoholic ex-husband, and she slaps him in a fit of anger. The two adults are brought together again when Trevor runs away from home and Arlene asks Eugene to help her find him.

After finding Trevor, Arlene begins to pursue Eugene sexually. Eugene has deep burn marks visible on his neck and face, and he initially resists Arlene's overtures out of insecurity. When they finally sleep together, he is seen to have extensive scarring all over his torso. Arlene accepts Eugene's physical disfigurement and forms an emotional bond with him, but quickly abandons their relationship when Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi) returns to her, claiming to have given up drinking. His return and her acceptance of it angers Eugene, whose own mother had a habit of taking his abusive, alcoholic father back. When Arlene attempts to explain to Eugene that she believes Ricky has changed for good, Eugene explains that his father intentionally burned him by knocking him unconscious, then pouring gasoline over him and igniting it. He berates Arlene for being "one of those women" and warns her of Ricky's potential to abuse Trevor. When Ricky drinks again and resumes his abusive behavior, Arlene realizes her mistake and forces him to leave.

Trevor's school assignment marks the beginning of the story's chronology, but the opening scene in the film shows one of the later favors in the "pay it forward" tree, in which a man gives a car to Los Angeles journalist Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr). As the film proceeds, Chris traces the chain of favors back to its origin as Trevor's school project. After her date with Eugene, Arlene paid Jerry's favor forward by forgiving her own mother, Grace (Angie Dickinson), for her mistakes in raising Arlene, and Grace, who is homeless, helps a gang member escape from the police. The gang member then saves a girl's life in a hospital, and the girl's father gives Chris his new car.

Chris finally identifies Trevor as the originator of "pay it forward" and conducts a recorded interview in which Trevor describes his hopes and concerns for the project. Eugene, hearing Trevor's words, realizes that he and Arlene should be together. As Eugene and Arlene reconcile with an embrace, Trevor notices his friend, Adam, being bullied by gangster-like children, as he has several times before. He pays it forward to Adam by rushing into the scene and fighting the bullies while Eugene and Arlene rush to stop him. One of the bullies takes a switchblade out of his pocket and stabs Trevor in the abdomen with it. The bullies run away and Trevor is taken to the hospital, where he dies from his injuries. This news is reported on television as well as the fact that the movement is spreading across the country; Arlene and Eugene are soon visited by hundreds of people who have participated in or heard of the "Pay It Forward" movement by gathering in a vigil to pay Trevor their respects.


  • Kevin Spacey as Eugene Simonet. He is Trevor's social studies teacher, and an emotionally and physically scarred man. As a teenager, he suffered abuse from his father (including lighting him on fire) and still has burns visible on his face and torso. He begins the film as a shy recluse, self-conscious about his deformities, but eventually he enters a relationship with Trevor's mother Arlene and overcomes his fears. He sets an assignment to Trevor's class, asking them to change the world for the better. He is significantly changed from the novel, where he was an African-American man named Reuben St. Clair who had been injured in the Vietnam War.
  • Helen Hunt as Arlene McKinney. She is Trevor's alcoholic, single mother who works at both a casino and a strip club. She has a past history of abusive relationships, especially with her mostly absent husband Ricky. She eventually enters a relationship with Eugene, and with his and Trevor's help manages to overcome her alcoholism and abuse.
  • Haley Joel Osment as Trevor McKinney. He is a 12-year-old boy who is troubled by his mother's alcoholism and his father's abuse and absence. He starts the "Pay It Forward" movement. He initially believes that the movement was not successful, and does not feel much pride towards it, stating that he was acting to improve the world - not to receive recognition. He is stabbed and killed while trying to pay it forward to his bullied friend, Adam.
  • Jay Mohr as Chris Chandler. He is a reporter who traces the "Pay it Forward" movement from Los Angeles back to Trevor. He interviews Trevor and writes a magazine column on the movement after Trevor's death.
  • James Caviezel as Jerry. He is a homeless drug addict who Trevor attempts to help as part of the "Pay it Forward" movement. Although Trevor believes his attempts have failed once Jerry relapses into drug use, Jerry eventually pays it forward by saving a woman who was about to kill herself on a bridge.
  • Angie Dickinson as Grace. She is Arlene's mother and Trevor's grandmother. Although she was a negligent parent to Arlene, almost forcing them to live on the street, Arlene eventually forgives her as part of the "Pay it Forward" movement.
  • Jon Bon Jovi as Ricky McKinney. He is Trevor's abusive and alcoholic father who has since left the family. Arlene often allows him to return to the family despite the abuse, however she learns throughout the film to reject him and protect Trevor and herself from violence.
  • Marc Donato as Adam. He is Trevor's friend who has been bullied his whole life at school. Trevor pays it forward to him by preventing him from being bullied, however he is stabbed in the process.
  • David Ramsey also stars as Sidney Parker, an African-American man involved in the "Pay it Forward" movement, as does Gary Werntz (director Mimi Leder's real-life husband) as Mr. Thorsen. Kathleen Wilhoite also stars as Bonnie, Arlene's sponsor and mentor.


Leslie Dixon adapted the screenplay from the book of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was available as an open writing assignment.[2] Dixon struggled with the adaptation of the book in part because of multiple narrative voices within it. Specifically, the reporter, the central character in the film, does not show up until halfway through the novel. Stuck, Dixon considered returning the money she was paid for the assignment.[3] She eventually hit upon the idea to start with the reporter and trace the events backwards.[3] Dixon presented the idea to Hyde who in turn liked it so much that she decided to change the then unpublished novel's plot structure to mirror the film's.[4] In the novel, the character of Eugene Simonet was originally an African-American man named Reuben St. Clair. The role was offered to Denzel Washington, but he turned it down the role to do Remember the Titans instead. Kevin Spacey was contacted next and accepted the role of Eugene Simonet.

On November 19, 1999, it was announced that Osment had been cast as Trevor McKinney.

The film was shot from February 14 until April 18, 2000. Filming took place on location in Las Vegas, Nevada and on studio in Los Angeles, California, with additional shooting (for the bridge scene) taking place in Portland, Oregon.


The film's soundtrack was composed by Thomas Newman and was released by Varèse Sarabande on October 7, 2000 (around two weeks before the film's release).

The soundtrack was generally praised by critics, and is considered to be fitting with the theme of the film.

The track listing of the soundtrack is:

  • "Possibility" (2:34)
  • "Car Trouble" (1:08)
  • "Washer Vodka" (1:53)
  • "Cereal Bum" (1:04)
  • "Come Out Jerry" (1:10)
  • "Fixture Vodka" (1:37)
  • "Rat Bastard" (0:57)
  • "One Kiss" (1:47)
  • "Tardiness" (2:11)
  • "In Recovery" (1:03)
  • "Jaguar" (1:04)
  • "Dumpster" (1:11)
  • "Sleepover" (4:33)
  • "Cosmic Aristotle" (1:56)
  • "Euphemism" (1:06)
  • "Pay It Forward" (1:06)
  • "Night and Day and Night" (1:09)
  • "Asthma" (0:59)
  • "Powers of Three" (1:03)
  • "Desert Drive" (1:35)
  • "Wasted Air" (1:42)
  • "The Bad Thing" (0:51)
  • "Gasoline" (1:40)
  • "Velocity Organ" (1:27)
  • "I Forgive You" (2:26)

In addition, the song "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry is played in the film and is included on the soundtrack.


The film opened at #4 in the North American box office making $9,631,359 USD in its opening weekend, behind Remember the Titans, Bedazzled and Meet the Parents, which was on its third week at number one.

The film received mixed reviews, although the performances of Spacey, Hunt, and Osment were universally praised.

Rotten Tomatoes rated the film with 40% based on 127 reviews with a consensus saying, "Pay It Forward has strong performances from Spacey, Hunt, and Osment, but the movie itself is too emotionally manipulative and the ending is bad."[5]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2.5 stars out of a possible 4 stating, "With a cleaner story line, the basic idea could have been free to deliver. As it is, we get a better movie than we might have, because the performances are so good: Spacey as a vulnerable and wounded man; Hunt as a woman no less wounded in her own way, and Osment, once again proving himself the equal of adult actors in the complexity and depth of his performance. I believed in them and cared for them. I wish the movie could have gotten out of their way."[6]

Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum gave it a "D" grade, calling it "reprehensible" for using "shameless cliches of emotional and physical damage" and then "blackmailing audiences into joining the let's-be-nice 'movement'" in order to be transparent Oscar bait.[7]


  1. ^ "Pay It Forward (2000) - Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  2. ^ Cohen, David S (2008). SCREENPLAYS: HOW 25 SCRIPTS MADE IT TO A THEATER NEAR YOU-FOR BETTER OR WORSE (First ed.). New York: HarperEntertainment. p. 115.
  3. ^ a b Cohen 117
  4. ^ Cohen 117-118
  5. ^ "Pay It Forward". Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Pay It Forward Movie Review & Film Summary (2000) - Roger Ebert". Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  7. ^ "Pay It Forward". Retrieved 25 February 2018.

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