Imagine your mortgage company suggested you pay back your debt by buying nutritious lunch to a food-stamps recipient or letting a homeless person take a shower in your bathroom instead of putting padlocks on your American-Dream home.
While it may sound as unbelievable as spotting an UFO, such social “phenomenon” is the driving force and the leitmotif of the 2000’s American drama “Pay it Forward.” Inevitably marked by the naturally feminine desire for compassion of director Mimi Leder and brought to life thanks to prominent actors such as Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey, this story of selflessness, unconditional love and sacrifice is an absolute eye-waterer.
Despite the fact the director Leder is largely known for presenting features from various genres (sci-fi “Deep Impact,” crime/heist “Thick as Thieves,” TV show “ER,” etc.), she manages to touch a string in everybody’s soul by presenting the down-to-earth, coming-of-age story of twelve-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osmont “The Sixth Sense”), a seventh-grader in the less-than-merciful city of Las Vegas, Nevada who tries to make the world a better place by paying it forward; in other words, his slightly eccentric social studies teacher Mr. Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey “L.A. Confidential”) has given the students a project to do a stranger a kindness-of-heart favor. Even though Trevor’s deed of cozying up to the much older homeless man Jerry (James Ezekiel “Double Jeopardy”) and letting him live in his mother’s garage is a little bit far-fetched and risky (the marginalized yet tough Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt “As Good as It Gets”) is not hesitant about waving a rifle), this gesture of kindness triggers a chain of pay-forward actions ranging from Jerry fixing Arlene’s car and later talking a seemingly well-off lady out of jumping from a bridge to Arlene forgiving her drifter of a mother and a wealthy man giving away his car to the destitute young reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr “Jerry Maguire”).
The very beginning and the very end of the film stand as a culmination of the main idea, only on different scales. The opening scenes show Chandler accepting with a gut feeling of shady ulterior motives the car bestowed to him by a man whose daughter was saved by…a gang member; the end-of-film credits of nation-wide vigil for Trevor (he died after being stabbed while trying to protect a friend from bullies) talk about the ultimate “pay-it-forward” sacrifice.
The Oscar winner Helen Hunt (best supporting actress for the rom-com “As Good as It Gets”) once again proves to be believable in her role of a single mother, albeit being plagued by alcoholism instead of the terminal illness of her child. From the scene where her inebriated character Arlene slaps Trevor causing his running away to the moment she shows her love-hate relationship with ex-husband Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi “New Year’s Eve”) by taking him back and subsequently kicking him out she is as insecure as ever, which suggests why she might have taken up drinking. Two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (best supporting actor “The Usual Suspects” and best actor “American Beauty”), on the other hand, “betrays” his usual tough-guy person in much grittier films “The Usual Suspects” and “L.A. Confidential” by playing the role of a down-to-earth teacher haunted by his own demons; his neck-and-chest burns (presumably from a childhood abuse) preclude him from having sexual relationships with women (including Arlene) and simultaneously prompt him to act as a father figure for unfortunate kids such as Trevor.
While the two definitely give a classical edge to the film, Haley Joel Osmont, a Young Artist Award-recipient for his debut in “Forrest Gump,” steals the entire plot with his honesty and even slight naivete. Indeed, his lack of pompousness when he confronts his mother about her drinking and when he runs to the aid of his best friend-turned target seems like the real reason why this film is a real chicken soup for the victimized-by-life person soul. Acclaimed singer Jon Bon Jovi and Angie Dickinson (“Sabrina,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) bring some comic relief to the otherwise solemn story in their respective roles of a carefree yet failed biological father to Trevor and a street-wise mother to Arlene.
The fact that the beginning of such a movement is set in such a greediness-ridden city as Las Vegas is mildly paradoxical; yet, it gives the plot a unique bitter-sweetness.