Pay It Forward Movie Poster Image

Pay It Forward



A bit syrupy, but sentimental teens may enjoy it.
Popular with kidsParents recommend
  • Review Date: May 8, 2003
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2000
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

What parents need to know


Brief fight scenes, character mortally wounded, sad death.


Sexual references and situations.


Some strong language.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Characters abuse alcohol and drugs.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this movie has some strong language, and characters abuse alcohol and drugs, including heroin and marijuana. There are references to the most 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. There are sexual references and a discreet sexual situation. A character's burn scars may be upsetting. Pre-teens and 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 does not 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 is not just to make them happier. Arlene and Eugene put all of their effort into making sure they do not get hurt again until they learn that it is 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 are 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 is 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.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the pay it forward idea. Would it work? What favors would family members like to do? Why is "routine" so important to Eugene? Why do we see him ironing his shirt twice in the movie? Why do we see Eugene sitting at a student's desk when he talks to Trevor? Why does Trevor say that "it has to be hard?" Families should also talk about Trevor's comment that the most important thing is watching people, paying attention to things they may not even know they need. Some families will also want to dicuss whether there is a religious allusion in the death of one character.

Movie details

Theatrical release date:October 20, 2000
DVD release date:May 15, 2001
Cast:Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey
Director:Mimi Leder
Studio:Warner Bros.
Run time:123 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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What parents and kids say

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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 you have the chance to see this, I would recommend you do. It is a story and a concept you won't ever forget. BUT -- our DVD box on the back says "Extraordinary Family Film" NOT! It totally depends on how old your family members are!!! I would say anyone below 14 shouldn't see it. There is alcoholism, drugs, violence, bad language, and sexual situations. The ending would not be one a younger child could handle. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER What I think would most disturb any younger viewers though is the fact that the boy this story is about is killed at the end. It was incredibly emotional for the 3 adults I watched this with and there is no way our children could have handled this hopeful story with this sad end. Though the point is poignantly made about this boy's effect on the world, it is a hard ending to take.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Great messages
Adult Written byCollegiateGirl December 3, 2011

Not For Kids

I feel like the positive message of this movie, paying it forward, is lost in the sea of inappropriate content. The relationship between the teacher and mother seemed out of place (from a writer's perspective), and was inappropriate for kids to be witnessing. I am a 22-year old college student, and I was shocked at what they put in there. The language was really rough and suggestive. This is not a kid movie, or a teen movie; this is an adult movie. Parents can summarize the idea of paying it forward to kids, but this is really not a good one to let them watch.
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Parent Written byhs_teacher/parent February 14, 2012

Great message for everyone, but movie not made for children!!!

Justice to one person can have an impact on not only the individual but on the world in ways unimaginable. It is the chain reaction of treating others with dignity and love. However, as positive as the message it, it is couched in horrible language, drugs and alcohol, sex outside of marriage as a norm. The strip bar scene at the start should be enough for any parent/educator to realize this is not meant for children and highly cautioned against teenagers. The violence (description of parental abuse and school bullying) is understandable as closely tied to the plot. Nonetheless, the positive message of kindness to another is wonderful, just not worth showing children.
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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