Pay It Forward

Movie review by
Nell Minow, Common Sense Media
Pay It Forward Movie Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Syrupy drama has mature themes, cursing, violence.
  • PG-13
  • 2000
  • 123 minutes

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 11 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 31 reviews

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Despite the fact that far more time is spent on issues like alcoholism and spousal and child abuse rather than showing more of the positive ramifications of the idea of "paying it forward," the idea of practicing random acts of kindness is discussed and sometimes shown. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Inspired by a social studies teacher who encourages his students to be aware of the bigger world beyond their school and neighborhood, 7th grader Trevor McKinney develops the idea of "paying it forward," a way for people to practice random acts of kindness and to make the world a better place. Trevor's social studies teacher is a tough but fair teacher who encourages his students to try and understand the world around them, and also encourages them to build their vocabulary. 


Character mortally wounded, stabbed to death, blood. Bullying -- boys knock down, kick, punch, and throw a boy into a dumpster. A mother slaps her son hard in the face in a moment of anger. A man talks of the physical abuse he received from his father, which resulted in the burn scars on his face and chest. A woman stands on the edge of a bridge on the verge of committing suicide. A man shatters the window of a store and steals a radio. A woman pulls a shotgun on a homeless man her son has let sleep in her garage. 


Sexual references and situations. References to a boy's mother sleeping around, especially when drunk. A scene in which a woman is on top of a man in bed, starting to take his shirt off. 


Frequent profanity. The "N" word used once. "Bulls--t," "bitch," "d--khead," "ass," "goddamn," "a--hole," "rat bastard," tween boy uses the word "s--t" on several occasions. A tween calls a bully a "fag." 


Pepsi and Gatorade products prominently displayed. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters struggle with drug and alcohol addictions. A woman who is trying to stop drinking hides bottles of vodka in her house and drinks when stressed. Beer and alcohol drinking in bars. Marijuana smoking. A character is addicted to heroin, with track marks on his arm. Cigarette smoking. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Pay it Forward is a 2000 movie in which Haley Joel Osment plays a 7th grade boy who, inspired by his social studies teacher, comes up with a way for people to practice random acts of kindness, which he hopes will lead to the world becoming a better place.  This movie has frequent profanity, including one use of the "N" word, as well as a tween boy who calls one of his bullies "a fag." Many of the characters abuse alcohol and drugs, including heroin and marijuana. There are references to severe domestic abuse. There are some fights, one resulting in mortal injury. A character attempts suicide. Another shoots his gun, though no one is injured. A character dies tragically. References to a boy's mother sleeping around, especially when drunk. There's a scene in which a woman is on top of a man in bed, starting to take his shirt off.  A character's burn scars may be upsetting. Teens may be especially concerned by the violence that occurs at a school, despite the metal-detectors kids walk through as they enter.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 10 and 12-year-old Written byMom and movie lover October 12, 2010

Excellent message and move, but NOT a "Family Film"

Pay It Forward was a moving film about cause and effect and consequences. It hit home about anyone's actions causing ripples in the water of the world. If... Continue reading
Adult Written byJaxLogan November 4, 2018

Not a family movie

Unfortunately the trailer was very misleading. It looked like a movie with a great message but it was not for 12 year olds. Alcoholic mother, several druggies,... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old July 3, 2010


ah, i cried. our yr 6 teacher let us watch it and it's M15+
anyway. sad movie
Teen, 14 years old Written bySneeze-fly January 19, 2021

Great, but...

Pay it forward is a very powerful film, but has some dodgy stuff in it.l The mother of Trevor works in a gentlemen's bar and dances around in underwear and... Continue reading

What's the story?

Seventh grader Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) has every reason to believe that life is harsh and painful. His parents are alcoholics and his father is either absent or abusive. He walks into school every day through a metal detector. Outside his classroom window is an endless expanse of desert. And his mom works two jobs in a city filled with despair, Las Vegas. But then his teacher Eugene (Kevin Spacey) encourages his students to "backflip" the world into something better. He doesn't expect much -- maybe a clean-up of some graffiti. But Trevor decides to do three important favors for people who need them. Then, instead of allowing them to pay it back, he will ask each of them to "pay it forward," doing three favors for other people, and asking them to do the same. One of Trevor's favors is to bring his mom Arlene and Eugene together, though it turns out that it's not just to make them happier. Arlene and Eugene put all of their effort into making sure they don't get hurt again until they learn that it's risking hurt that makes us alive.

Is it any good?

If the theme of PAY IT FORWARD appeals to you and you'd like to see three of the finest actors ever put on film, then you're the audience for this movie. If it sounds syrupy, go see something else. Haley Joel Osment portrays Trevor as an extraordinary child, wise and sensitive beyond his years because of what he has had to face, but still completely believable as an 11-year-old. Helen Hunt is heartbreaking as Arlene, a recovering alcoholic with a history of loss and abuse. And Kevin Spacey is breathtaking in a role that's a departure from the tough and wily guys he often plays.

Trevor's idea doesn't always work, but when it does, people are transformed, not by the favors others do for them as much as by the favors they do for the next people in the chain. We get a glimpse of its impact as the story is interwoven with scenes four months into the future, as a reporter tries to track down the source of the mysterious acts of generosity.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the "pay it forward" idea. Would it work? What favors would you like to do?

  • Why do you think the movie spends more time on topics like domestic abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, and bullying, rather than on the changes that gradually take place in society as the "pay it forward" idea spreads? 

  • This movie was based on a book. What would be the challenges in adapting a book like this into a movie? 

Movie details

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