YOU COULD JUST THINK
PAY IT FORWARD
A Mimi Leder film
Screenplay by Leslie Dixon
Based on the Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Article by Debra A. McCampbell, KidActors
This year, both my dads died. The Braves didnt even win their division, falling
apart when it really counted, after a stellar season. It did start off really well for
most of us, this year 2000. Even though most of us spent New Years Eve at home, just
in case, Y2K was only a fizzle. The next day, the world seemed to breathe a
collective sigh of relief. It looked like this big-numbered year could be a great big
turning point in some ways. In others, it felt like any other year, comfortable and fresh,
will no mistakes in it yet.
But since February, Ive had this little boys voice in the back of my mind
asking, Is the world just shit? And later, his own answer to that same
question --- no, its not.
Finally, the day has come when the voice of that little boy belongs to the most
talented child working in film today, Haley Joel Osment. Now, the story of that boy
resonates to the very core of my being. And it always will.
By now, the concept is
familiar to most. An emotionally and physically scarred social studies teacher (Kevin
Spacey) challenges his students to Think of an idea to change our world and put it
into ACTION. One of his students, troubled latchkey kid, Trevor (Osment) takes the
assignment to heart and cooks up a plan called Pay It Forward. Do three big favors for
three people and then they each do three big favors for three other people, and so on.
Although, Trevors classmates snicker at his idea, his teacher sees real possibility
in it. He encourages Trevor and immediately wins the admiration of the fatherless boy.
After Trevor attempts to help a homeless addict clean up and get a job, he sets his sights
on his lonely teacher and his struggling alcoholic mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt). As only a
child could imagine, he thinks that these two people can fix each other. Its a
disaster at first. But theres magic in this simple concept and soon Trevors
world does begin to change.
Set in Las Vegas, amid the broken dreams and desperate lives unique to that
environment, this is a gritty story that somehow still manages to have a storybook quality
to it. Witness the majestic shots of the mountains outside Trevors classroom. Watch
as a sleek silver Jaguar zooms along a twisting desert road. Blue ribbons of clouds
stretch across a darkening sky. You can almost smell the squalor of the homeless camp as
you notice the pyramid of the Luxor Hotel & Casino rising in the background. And there
are the castle turrets of The Excalibur as well. It is a sharply composed film in this
aspect. I was also impressed with the way the characters were shot. The first time we see
Trevor, he looks so small on the campus of his middle school. When this new teacher, Mr.
Simonet (more on that name later) turns around to collective silence from his young
charges, we see this man in the only place he feels comfortable in his own skin. He
diffuses their unrest immediately, and engages Trevor.
People will talk about Kevin
Spaceys embodiment of a severely burn-scarred, gun-shy middle-aged virgin
schoolteacher. Its a wonderful performance. His warmest ever. He hinted at this kind
of tenderness in his scenes with Mena Suvari in AMERICAN BEAUTY. Here, his man of letters
is adorably reduced to a stammering puddle when he realizes his attraction to Arlene and
tries to act on it by asking her to a real dinner date.
His is not the only winning performance in the film. Jim Caviezels courage in how
willing he is to look utterly disgusting makes his character all the more endearing in his
struggle. Helen Hunt, refreshingly only about two years younger than her leading man, also
allows herself to seem so pathetic early on that you wonder why the authorities
havent already removed her boy from her custody.
It was about this time last year when one name was on everyones lips when Oscars
were mentioned. I think well be hearing a lot of that talk repeated in the next
month or so as this movie spreads into the consciousness. Haley Joel Osment returns with
another knockout performance that will haunt your dreams for a long, long time. He has
moments that are shattering, funny, and achingly real.
Osment creates a remarkable
character, unlike any he has played before. His Trevor is a regular boy in difficult
circumstances who somehow rises to meet a challenge that will change the lives of everyone
who touches it. One of the strengths of the movie lies in his eerie believability. So
grounded is he in this little kids reality that we cannot help being pulled into his
world. Just listen to him answer the phone and realize its his mom. Watch him eat
stale cereal with the homeless man hes brought home just minutes after we first meet
him. When he just cant listen to his moms promises and lies anymore and he
lashes out at her, hold onto your seat. Its so raw, so perfect a moment, you hate
that a slap has to ruin his chance to finally say what he needs to say to her. But the
aftermath of that moment changes Arlene. Maybe even saves her life. She doesnt take
One of the best scenes in the movie seems unlikely on paper. Spacey and Hunt sit on the
couch, watching TV with Osment. Pretty soon, you see that the kids jacked up on
wrestling. He starts jumping around, imitating holds, crashing into his beanbag chair,
begging Spaceys character to join his excitement and agree to take him to a match.
Spacey tells him that instead he is going to get Encyclopedias for his birthday.
Osments kid-sized horror is so hilarious and genuine, it seems like were eves
This is a movie about seeing things differently. Really looking, seeing the reality of
the thing. How we view the world and everyone in it is a constant thread throughout. Take,
for instance, our revulsion at the sight of Jerry. Arlene to Eugene: You look good
to me, and, Do you look down on me? Trevor to Arlene: I hate the
way you look! Eugenes You dont see me! And finally, Trevor
says, You have to watch people more, before you can help them.
Its about promises. The kind you get sick of hearing, those that are never kept.
Its about a boy who never gives up on people even when they seem continually
determined to prove themselves unworthy of his love. There is one exception ---
Trevors loser of a father. Even Eugene recognizes Ricky as nothing more than the
sperm donor --- a guy who gave up his parent card long ago and makes no effort to redeem
it, to connect with his son. Sadly, he just seems to see Trevor as a nuisance.
PAY IT FORWARD doesnt present an
easy world with easy conclusions but the real one that just keeps on breaking our hearts,
no matter how hard we try. Yet somehow, we manage to get up everyday and start again. Try
again to defeat the same old arduous tasks, maintain the same old arduous relationships,
and make things just a little bit better for ourselves and those we love. Well, most of us
do, anyway. It takes an enormous act of courage some days just to go out there into the
world, doesnt it? So how do we keep doing it, day after day? Because theres
still hope. And theres still so much out there to explore. Fear cant defeat
us. Not as long as we love each other, watch over each other, protect each other.
Thats Trevors idea. That we just help each other.
Some people will say the ending is out-of-left-field, over-the-top, and contrary to the
plot. Nope. It is foreshadowed three times. If you miss them the first time you see the
film, youll catch them the next. And if you think about it, no matter how painful it
is, it does make sense.
** Eugene Simonet is a name chosen by Kevin Spacey for the character
of Trevors teacher. In the novel on which the movie was based, he is named Reuben
St. Clair. No one has yet explained why Spacey chose this name. I have a weird theory to
share with you, just for fun. I think Eugene Simonet is an anagram. Haley Joel
Osments fathers name is Eugene Osment. Take the name Eugene Simonet and
scramble the letters, you get I Eugene Osment. What that means, I dont
know. But I have speculated that its Spaceys tribute to The Kid. Kinda telling
his dad, dont worry about him. Im looking out for him on this movie. Call me
crazy. Its possible