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Pay It Forward (film)

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

Pay It Forward is a 2000 American romantic drama film directed by Mimi Leder. The film is based loosely on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It is set in Las Vegas, and it chronicles 11- to 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-to-negative reviews and was a box office disappointment, grossing $55.7 million worldwide against a $40 million budget.


Trevor McKinney begins the seventh grade in Las Vegas. His social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, assigns the class to put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor calls his plan "pay it forward", which means the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying it back. However, it needs to be a favor that the recipient cannot complete themselves. Trevor implements the plan himself, forming a branch of good deeds. His first deed is to let a homeless man named Jerry live in his garage, and Jerry pays the favor forward by doing car repairs for Trevor's mother, Arlene, though Jerry later disappoints Trevor by moving out and returning to drug use.

Meanwhile, Arlene 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, and Trevor and Arlene argue about her love for Ricky, her alcoholic ex-husband, and Arlene slaps Trevor in a fit of anger. Eugene and Arlene 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 this and forms an emotional bond with him, but abandons their relationship when Ricky returns, claiming to have quit drinking. Her accepting him angers Eugene, whose mother had a habit of taking his abusive, alcoholic father back. Eugene explains that his scars are the result of his father setting him on fire in a drunken rage. He berates Arlene for being like his mother and warns her of Ricky's potential to abuse Trevor. When Ricky starts drinking again and resumes his abusive behavior, Arlene realizes her mistake and forces Ricky to leave. In his final scene, Jerry talks a suicide jumper off a bridge.

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. 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, for her mistakes in raising Arlene, and Grace, who is homeless, helps a gang member escape from the police. The gang member then saves an asthmatic 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, realizes that he and Arlene should be together. As Eugene and Arlene reconcile with an embrace, Trevor notices his friend Adam being bullied. He pays forward to Adam by rushing into the scene and fighting the bullies while Eugene and Arlene rush to stop him. One of the bullies pulls out a switchblade as another one pushes Trevor against him, fatally stabbing Trevor in the stomach. Trevor later dies at the hospital. This, and the spread of the movement across the country, is being reported in the news; Arlene and Eugene are soon visited by thousands of people, including students from Trevor's school, who have participated in or heard of the "pay it forward" movement by gathering in a vigil to honor him.


  • Kevin Spacey as Eugene Simonet, 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 for Trevor's class, asking them to change the world for the better. He is changed significantly from the novel, where there was an African-American man named Reuben St. Clair who had been injured in the Vietnam War.
  • Helen Hunt as Arlene McKinney, 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, an 11 to 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 toward 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, a reporter who traces the "pay it forward" movement from Los Angeles back to Trevor. He interviews Trevor and writes a magazine column about the movement after Trevor's death.
  • James Caviezel as Jerry, a homeless drug addict whom 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 by jumping off a bridge.
  • Angie Dickinson as Grace, Arlene's mother and Trevor's maternal 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, Trevor's abusive and alcoholic father who has 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, 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, Trevor is fatally stabbed in the process.
  • David Ramsey also stars as Sidney Parker, also 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 backward.[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.[5] The role was offered to Denzel Washington, but he turned it down to do Remember the Titans instead. Kevin Spacey was contacted next and accepted the role of Eugene Simonet.

In November 1999, it was announced that Osment had been cast as Trevor McKinney.[6]

Though the book is set in Tucson, Arizona, the film production changed the setting to Las Vegas, Nevada, to "show Las Vegas life off the Strip."[7] Filming took place between February[8][7] and April 2000[9] in Las Vegas and in studio in Los Angeles, California,[10] with additional shooting (for the bridge scene) taking place in Portland, Oregon.[11]


The film's soundtrack was composed by Thomas Newman and was released by Varèse Sarabande on October 31, 2000. The soundtrack generally was praised by critics, and is considered to be fitting with the theme of the film.[12]

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.


Box office[edit]

The film opened at #4 in the North American box office making $9,631,359 million USD in its opening weekend,[1] behind Remember the Titans, Bedazzled and Meet the Parents, the latter of which was on its third week of release at the number one spot.[13]

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval score of 39% based on 131 reviews, with an average rating of 5.1/10. The consensus reads, "Pay It Forward has strong performances from Spacey, Hunt, and Osment, but the movie itself is too emotionally manipulative and the ending is bad."[14] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 40 out of 100 based on reviews from 34 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[15] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.[16]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two and a half out of four stars, 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."[17]

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.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Pay It Forward (2000)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  2. ^ Cohen 2008, p. 115.
  3. ^ a b Cohen 2008, p. 117.
  4. ^ Cohen 2008, pp. 117–118.
  5. ^ Alter, Ethan (October 17, 2000). "'Pay It Forward' courts a racial controversy". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  6. ^ "Boy wonder Pays It Forward". The Guardian. November 30, 1999. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  7. ^ a b Cling, Carol (January 17, 2000). "Column: Shooting Stars". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Archived from the original on December 13, 2001. Retrieved August 30, 2022.
  8. ^ "Haley Joel Osment, supporting actor of the year". Philippine Daily Inquirer. February 17, 2001. p. G3. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  9. ^ Carr, Jay (November 9, 2000). "Setting a standard". Boston Globe. p. D3. Retrieved July 14, 2022 – via Toledo Blade.
  10. ^ "Pay It Forward". filming.90210locations.info. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  11. ^ "Pay It Forward". Film in America. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  12. ^ "Pay It Forward". AllMusic. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  13. ^ Natale, Richard (October 23, 2000). "'Parents' Gets In the Last Word With Moviegoers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
  14. ^ "Pay It Forward". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  15. ^ "Pay It Forward Reviews". Metacritic. Red Ventures. Retrieved February 2, 2022.
  16. ^ "CinemaScore". CinemaScore. Retrieved February 2, 2022. Each film's score can be accessed from the website's search bar.
  17. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 20, 2000). "Pay It Forward Movie Review & Film Summary (2000) - Roger Ebert". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved February 25, 2018.
  18. ^ Schwarzbaum, Lisa (October 27, 2000). "Pay It Forward". Entertainment Weekly. New York City: Meredith Corporation. Retrieved February 25, 2018.


External links[edit]