Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey and Helen Hun
Director: Mimi Leder
MARKETS are an image of the world. They offer both trash and treasure.
In Pay it Forward, Helen Hunt’s character, Arlene, sees herself as trailer trash, an alcoholic, promiscuous, a victim of a violent and drunken husband. But it is her son, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense) who discovers the treasure, the goodness in each person and their capacity for being selfless and helping others.
This is a film about goodness in the world.
Most films depend on a conflict between good and evil for their dramatic impact. It is very difficult to make a film about goodness. It can seem too good to be true. Or it can seem to be nothing more than sentimental wishful thinking. Leslie Dixon’s screenplay, based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, acknowledges these difficulties and often inserts sharp comments about do-goodism and being too optimistic. There is mention of “Utopia”.
In Las Vegas, teacher Eugene Simonet begins his Grade 7 social studies class by challenging his students to find a new idea that could change the world. Trevor, whose mother, Arlene, is an alcoholic and whose father has disappeared, plans to help three people who, in turn, might help three people each. There would be a movement of generous help of people who “pay it forward”.
Trevor helps a homeless addict (who later prevents a suicide), who also helps Arlene. At first angry with Eugene, she is manoeuvred into meeting him by Trevor who has come to admire him. They fall in love. Unexpectedly, Trevor’s father returns and Arlene feels she has to give him another chance. Eugene tells her the story of his childhood with a violently abusive father who had set him alight and burnt his body and face. He cannot forgive Arlene.
So Las Vegas today is no Utopia. Its behind-the-glamour scenes in the working suburbs of the city (with the glitzy and sleazy background always visible), its portrayal of people on the streets, drug and alcohol addiction, the reality of physical abuse and dysfunctional families, schoolyard bullying and violence ensure that the audience knows that this is the real world with very mean streets and that this is where goodness is needed and is possible.
Kevin Spacey has shown versatility in his performances, especially his villains (his Oscar-winning
The Usual Suspects, Seven) and his ambiguous suburban heroes (his Oscar-winning American Beauty). His Eugene Simonet is a good man, a good teacher, literally scarred by domestic violence, who strives to overcome his bitterness by encouraging children to engage with the world and try to change it. Helen Hunt gives a strong variation on her single mother performance in As Good as it Gets. Haley Joel Osment also shows versatility and conviction as a boy, who is eventually presented as a boy with the courage of his convictions.
I can say that the Gospels were coming into my mind during the film and strongly towards the end.