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Film / Pay It Forward

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Pay It Forward is a 2000 drama film directed by Mimi Leder and based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and (in a minor role) Jon Bon Jovi.

A boy named Trevor is given an assignment to "think of something to change the world, and put it into action". He thinks of "paying it forward", in which you help three people, and tell each of them to "pay it forward", and help three other people. We see the implementation and results of this plan for kindness through the eyes of the people he pays it forward to.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Trevor's father beats his mother, Mr. Simonet's father beat his mother and him (not to mention burning him alive), and Trevor's grandmother is implied to have been this.
  • Achievements in Ignorance: This is the plot as described by the mother:
    "You don't know my son, you tell him he can do something and he's going to believe you."
  • An Aesop: The Central Theme of the movie is that by performing random acts of kindness for complete strangers we are able to change the world for the better.
  • Bully Brutality: Trevor attempts to protect his classmate from some bullies and is stabbed to death as a result.
  • Campfire Character Exploration: Arlene and her homeless mother have a heartwarming moment together sitting by a Trashcan Bonfire.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Eugene has huge problems in opening himself up to Arlene. Twice he starts to explain his situation to her but cannot finish the sentence.
  • Casual Car Giveaway: At the start, Chris (the reporter) witnesses a hostage situation at a house. The guy holding the hostage escapes from the house, crashing into Chris' car as he leaves. A guy then gives Chris his car as part of the 'pay it forward' cycle.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The knife smuggled into school by the bullies at the beginning is the one Trevor is stabbed with at the end.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Trevor gets stabbed at the end. Cue Slow-Motion Fall and then cut to the ER doc telling the the mother he's dead, upon which she collapses.
  • Death of a Child: At the end of the film, Trevor himself is fatally stabbed by bullies. He’s twelve.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The film starts with a hostage situation. Everyone involved is led to believe they'll be the main focus, but once the assailant takes off and Chris is loaned a car by a passerby taking on the pay-it-forward challenge, the story shifts away from them.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: When all seems to have ended well, Trevor decides to stand up to the school bullies and is fatally stabbed as a result.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the book Trevor dies when he rushes in to help a gay couple getting mugged. In the movie, he is killed defending a kid from some bullies.
  • Disney Death:
    • We're led to believe that Jerry the drug addict is dying when Trevor tries to contact him. We see him again much later when he pays it forward and rescues a suicidal woman.
    • Averted with Trevor.
  • Downer Ending: Trevor dies and his killer is never shown getting any sort of punishment.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Trevor.
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Mr. Simonet explains that his face was disfigured by his father freaking lighting him on fire.
  • Exposition Diagram: Used to explain how "Pay It Forward" works.
  • Floating Head Syndrome: The movie poster.
  • Flyaway Shot: The movie ends on a zoom-out shot from the backyard while the song "Calling All Angels" is played, symbolizing Trevor's ascent to heaven.
  • Forged Message: How Trevor gets his mother and his teacher into one room together.
  • Gang of Bullies: A very small and one. Just two of them.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Played straight with Eugene's facial scars which are not that repulsive, but subverted later when he exposes his badly-scarred chest.
  • Greater Need Than Mine: The injured gangbanger at the beginning of the movie realizes that his wound is being prioritized over a teenage girl who cannot breathe. Despite the fact that the police are already looking for him, he makes a huge scene demanding that she be treated first, going so far as to fire his gun into the floor to make his point.
  • Hat-and-Coat Shot: The movie ends on a Flyaway Shot.
  • The Hero Dies: Apparently they Dropped a Bridge on Him.
  • Hero Killer: The bullies' leader.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Trevor dies protecting a kid from some bullies.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts four months into the story in L.A. and then we rewind to see how the pay-it-forward movement started in Las Vegas.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Trevor's first person to receive the "Pay It Forward" treatment stops a woman from jumping off a bridge.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Chris.
  • Jerkass: Ricky, Trevor's father. There's also the bullies.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Eugene is always well-meaning, but he starts out as an anti-social jerk who loves using and pushing academic words on others, including kids.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The two bullies who murder Trevor seem to get no punishment for, you know, murdering him, at least not on-screen. However, their presence at the remembrance ceremony, coupled with the looks on their faces, suggests they're remorseful and eventually got found out and dealt with.
    • All Domestic Abuser Ricky gets is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
  • Kids Play Matchmaker: Trevor arranges a dinner between his Single Mom Stripper and his Cool Teacher by writing letters to each party claiming to be from the other side. It works out eventually.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Trevor's mother is instantly guilt-ridden after she slaps Trevor in the face.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: In this case, it gets you killed!
  • No Name Given: The trio of bullies.
  • Not Afraid of You Anymore: Trevor's teacher tried to do this to his dad when he was young. To quote a previous role that he played: It didn't work.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: At the end of the movie, Trevor’s mother is still alive. Trevor himself is not.
  • Pædo Hunt: Trevor is approached by a stranger who attempts to touch him. Trevor's teacher promptly comes in and kicks his ass.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Trevor gives one at the end when doing the taped interview.
  • Paying It Forward: This is the Central Theme of the film. As part of a school project, Trevor comes up with the plan to "pay it forward" by performing random acts of kindness for three complete strangers who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people, creating a charitable pyramid scheme that would quickly ripple through society and change the world for a better. The movie ends on a bittersweet note, as it takes the death of the hero for the movement to attract the media's attention and to eventually grow nationwide.
  • Race Lift: Trevor's teacher was African-American in the book, but played by Kevin Spacey in the film. The role had been offered to Denzel Washington, but he had to decline due to a prior commitment.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Trevor is senselessly murdered, yet the ceremony implies that his life has still made an impact, including on the audience (see Fridge Brilliance).
  • Reliably Unreliable Guns: Arlene's rifle goes off when she accidentally drops it in the garage.
  • Single Mom Stripper: Trevor's mom is this.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The film tries to reach an idealistic conclusion with a cynical backstory and an equally cynical ending.
  • Teacher/Parent Romance: Trevor manages to pair his mother with his teacher.
  • Title Drop: On numerous occasions.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Poor Trevor...
  • Visit by Divorced Dad: When Trevor's father shows up. It doesn't work out.
  • Viva Las Vegas!: Subverted. We get a glimpse behind the shiny facade of the city.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: At the start of the film, Chris (the reporter) witnesses a hostage situation at a house. The guy holding the hostage escapes from the house, crashing into Chris' car as he leaves. A guy then gives Chris his car as part of the 'pay it forward' cycle. The hostage-taker is never seen or mentioned again.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Trevor's mother slaps him when he says he hates everything about her. She quickly feels remorseful about it, though.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Played for laughs with the reporter early on, when he is offered a Jaguar for free by a stranger. The reporter is baffled and asks if he perhaps was expected to kill the stranger's wife in return and when this is denied he suspects the Jag might be rigged to blow up (which of course was not the case).