We think this movie stands out for:
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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?
- In theaters: October 20, 2000
- On DVD or streaming: May 15, 2001
- Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey
- Director: Mimi Leder
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Compassion, Gratitude
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence
Find more movies that help kids build character.
For kids who love dramas
Our editors recommend
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.