Pay It Forward

MPA Rating: PG-13-Rating (MPA) for mature elements: substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence.

Reviewed by: Ken James

Moral Rating: Average
Moviemaking Quality:
Primary Audience: Mature Teen to Adult
Genre: Drama
Length: 2 hr. 3 min.
Year of Release: 2000
USA Release:
Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment in “Pay It Forward”
Relevant Issues

What does God expect of you?

Why does God allow innocent people to suffer?

What should a Christian do if overwhelmed with depression?

Featuring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel
Director Mimi Leder, Oliver Stapleton
Producer Mary McLagen, Jonathan Treisman, Leslie Dixon, Peter Abrams, Robert L. Levy, Steven Reuther
Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures. Trademark logo.
Warner Bros. Pictures
, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company

Christians: take note of Matthew 7 and Galations 5…

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” —Matthew 7:12 NASB

“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’.” —Galations 5:14 NASB

Haley Joel Osment as Trevor McKinney in “Pay It Forward”

Now consider 11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense”), a seventh grader challenged by Social Studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) in an extra credit assignment to “change the world”. What does the world expect of an 11-year-old? Absolutely nothing. What good can a seventh grader do in changing the world? The answer may surprise you.

Life is hard for Las Vegas residents Trevor and single-mom Arlene (Helen Hunt). Problematic issues of alcoholism and abuse, both physical and sexual, plague the McKinney family. Arlene is distanced from her son by her alcoholism and chronic bad decision making. She works at a casino by day and waitresses at a strip club by night. But Trevor is no ordinary son. He sees the potential he can make in a world that looks like *expletive* (in Trevor’s words). He comes up with a plan to impact the lives of three people. If they accept, it is their duty to continue the idea of paying it forward (instead of back) by impacting the lives of three others. Instead of “each one reach one” it is “each one reach three.” Eventually the results can change the world.

“Pay It Forward” is told in an interesting present-to-past-to-present storyline by means of an intrusive reporter who is freely given a classy new Jaguar. The benevolent Jag owner tells the reporter he is just “paying it forward.” Blown away by this idea of generosity, he is determined to find the origin of this statement, leading him to the lives of many who had been forever impacted by the utopian idea concocted by a far-off seventh grader. The story unfolds nicely, offering technical mastery and Oscar-caliber performances.

While I do recommend this film for some mature teens and adults, it is not for everyone. It is rated PG-13 for mature elements: substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence. Offensive language contains at least 25 “s” words, as well as several uses of God’s name in vain. Hunt’s character dresses life Erin Brockovich in many scenes, including two or so scenes where she is seen in her bra. Provocative women dancers are also included toward the beginning of the film as we are introduced to Arlene’s night employer.

Helen Hunt in “Pay It Forward” Trevor works toward setting up his mom with his teacher, and eventually succeeds in this. He is thrilled to know they “had a sleepover” at his house, seeing it as a means to an end of preventing future abuse for the time when his deadbeat dad (played by Jon Bon Jovi) may appear again, not to mention the happiness his mother and teacher experience when in each others company (in one scene of sexuality without nudity). There are a few scenes of violence, though nothing over-the-top. Not only do we learn that Arlene’s past is riddled with abuse, but burn-scarred Mr. Simonet, in an emotional monologue, shows just how depraved our world can be through the past he can never forget.

Of situational ethics concern, two of the characters “paying it forward” do so in disregard to the law, though one can see that the grace they received caused them to find hope in the world, leading them on to help others as well.

If “Pay It Forward” does not challenge Christians to be salt and light in a depraved world, then my suggestion is for those of apathy to reflect deep inside to see if Christ has really changed their heart. To be a Christian who follows the example of Jesus we must be living costly lives, surrendered to Christ and fighting off the lure of ease and comfort. If Trevor, a poor pre-teen with no Christian background, can see the impact he can make for the better, what more should we be doing to reach the lost? Houses are on fire around us, people are asleep inside, and how many Christians are willing to let those in danger know how to escape their eternal destiny and find their way to life everlasting? Jesus Christ already paid the ultimate price two thousand years ago. He “paid it forward,” and now we are indebted to serving him in our lives if we truly love Him.

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” —Matthew 25:37-40 (NASB)

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
…truly the brokeness of those who don’t know the healing, restoring, life changing embrace of Jesus was portrayed. …Jesus Himself deliberately walked amongst the broken…[they] did not hide their brokenness on His account…

Though there is no nudity, there is innuendo, but more than innuendo there is a desperate search between two utterly betrayed and broken adults, with scars so deep that only the superficial is safe. Then there is the child (“and a little child shall lead them”) I could so much relate to the heartache he felt, the desperate hope that there can be better in the world. And who has not breathed the heavy sigh of discouragement when we realize that it will take more than just one. I think of Jesus here. Because Jesus’ life was mapped out. He was born to die for us… period. He would do one very hard thing that would change a person’s life. He would “Pay it Forward.” But he knew at the time of His death that it would only work if the ones He invested in, 1) received His gift, and 2) passed it on (or themselves Paid it Forward).

This movie depicts a reality we humans (Christians included) are too busy, too self centered, and to prideful to see. The world we live in today is hard, angry, rushed, self-centered, exhausted, weary, rarely joyful, and rarely lighthearted. The concept of “Pay It Forward” is exactly what we need to wake us up to the people we encounter: the ones we embrace, and the ones we find abrasive, the ones we love and the ones we find unlovable, the ones we don’t even notice, and the ones we hope won’t notice us… and finally, the ones we wish had noticed us. The movie caused me to begin thinking of some pretty “unlikely” possibilities… think BIG in terms of what God can do in and through anyone who dares give in spite of their own needs…” My Ratings: [3½/4]
Donna Miller, age 37
Pay It Forward was the most moving, inspiring, and heart-wrenching film I’ve seen this year. The acting is superb. Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment all turn in excellent performances, as do Jon Bon Jovi and the other supporting cast members. Yes, it is sad to see a story of a group of people who are caught up in the evil of the world, who’ve probably been exposed only to endless cycles of abuse and never to the love of Jesus. At the same time, it is encouraging to see the story of a child with vision and hope that things can change and that he could do a small part to change things. It shows a Christian that people are looking for hope and something to believe in. Anyone can do something to make a difference in another life—even you. Go see this film. The sentiment will not soon be forgotten. It’s not often Hollywood turns out quality mechandise. Supporting this film will show the powers that be that there is a market for quality entertainment. My Ratings: [3½/5]
Becky, age 25
I loved this movie and, in fact, encourage all young people to see it.
Ivy, age 28
My wife and I went to see the film. I must say that it is a good story. The only thing that bothered me terribly, was when the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was improperly used. Some people can overlook that, I can’t. It hurts! The movie has a great message for everyone. And the message is, “Don’t point a finger, lend a hand”. My Ratings: [2/3]
Jacques “Jerry” Lemieux, age 48
Here’s the film in a nutshell: Nice story—shocking ending—much profanity—great acting—see it, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. My Ratings: [1½/5]
Anon, teen
My wife and I went to see this movie from the suggestions of family and friends, and we were not disappointed! All three of the main actors/actress were phenomenal in their performances, and the idea behind the movie is something that all of us as Christians should be doing (only, we should not stop at 3). There was an implied sex scene which was presented as a “good” thing, and the “s” word did fly a lot, even from the kids, but these were the only things that were questionable. This was a WONDERFUL movie; we laughed, cried, and we sincerely felt good/bad for the trials that this boy had to go through. I would DEFINITELY suggest this movie to anybody, but FYI, bring your kleenex… you’ll need it for this wonderfully made movie. My Ratings: [3½/5]
Curtis Jones, age 23
I wanted to go see this movie because a secular film reviewer said it was great except for the last fifteen minutes. That you should leave because it was filled with Christian ideology. The movie is filled with lots of people who are not Christians so we should not be surprised as to the content. Sinners commit sin just like us Christians. Praise God we have learned that we can now receive forgiveness and there is hope for the future. I really liked this movie a lot. I was ashamed at myself for not doing what this boy was doing. Helen Hunt forgiving. That’s the only thing that I can figure out that was from a Christian perspective. Unconditional forgiveness. I did not see the boy as a messiah figure. I won’t say to much more. I will ruin the ending for you. This is definitely not a happy movie I cried through most of the movie. It is the best movie I have seen in a long time. I was challenged to get back to if you give to anyone a glass of water in my name great is your reward in Heaven. My Ratings: [1/5]
Janise Daus, age 37
I was lucky enough to see a sneak preview of the film last week before it opened. Which means I’ve also been able to see all the hype build up as the actual opening came. I loved this movie. It was nothing short of brilliant. You can just lay out all the Oscar nominations next to PAY IT FORWARD and say, “Yeah, it pretty much gets all of these.” This is my favorite movie of the year. Kevin Spacey is phenomenal, as is Helen Hunt. And what can you say about Haley Joel Osment? The kid is fantastic! And those are just the main characters. There are many other fine actors in the film as well. [Jay Mohr, James Caviezel] This film was nearly flawless. I laughed a great deal in the movie. But don’t listen to what some reviewers are saying. This is NOT a “Happy” movie. It is very dark in some aspects, particularly Spacey’s character, “Eugene Simonet.” There was some language in the movie, particularly from a hilarious gangster, but I wasn’t too offended. The good not just outweighs, but more like, engulfs the bad. I simply LOVED this movie. I don’t know what else to say except “Go see it!” My Ratings: [2½/5]
Jason Eaken, age 17
What this film has to offer can be learned from the poster. Do something nice for some people, and tell them to pass the niceness on. Great idea. Lousy film. An eleven-year-old boy is put in the position of solving all the problems in Las Vegas, including, but not limited to heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, strip bars, child abuse and homelessness. Strangely enough, he does not completely succeed, and somehow the fact that he is transformed into a Messiah figure at the end can’t redeem the ugliness that has pervaded the rest of the film. Unmarried sex is portrayed as redemptive and is, in fact, part of the eleven-year-old’s good deeds program. No one in the movie really has any idea what’s actually wrong—or right—with the world. I guess that’s why the kid gets stuck with the heavy moral lifting. My Ratings: [2/4]
Gretchen Cole, age 38
Movie Critics
…strong redeeming values for older teen and adult audiences…
Preview Family Movie and TV Review
…an intelligent screenplay that tells an intriguing story…
James Berardinelli, ReelViews
…one of those miracles-can-happen movies, a living, breathing Hallmark card…
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today