Pay It Forward Movie Essay

Pay It Forward - We Can Change the World

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Pay It Forward - We Can Change the World

If someone did you a favor, something big, something that you could not do on your own, and instead of paying it back, you paid it forward to three people. Imagine the next day, they each paid it forward to three more people. And imagine the day after, those 27 people each paid it forward to another three people. Then each day afterwards, everyone in turn paid it forward to three more people; in two weeks that comes to 4,782,969 people.

This is the idea that gives the movie Pay It Forward such persuasive appeal. The specific persuasive purpose is to get people to think how such a simple idea can make a big difference. Another persuasive goal of the movie was to get people to not be afraid to help others, and tell those people to help other like they were helped. The idea must follow these three rules: First, It has to be something that really helps people. Second, It has to be something they can't do by themselves. Lastly, if I do it for them, they do it for three other people (Pay It Forward 2000).

The title of the movie is Pay It Forward; it was released into the theatre on October 20, 2000 nationwide. The director was Mimi Leder who did other films such as Peacemaker and Deep Impact. The screenwriter was Leslie Dixon, known for Overboard, That Old Feeling, Mrs. Doubtfire, Look Who's Talking Now; co writer of The Thomas Crown Affair and Smoke & Mirrors. The basis of this movie is from the best-selling novel Pay It Forward written by Catherine Ryan Hyde. The movie received mixed reviews from film critics the most common was the one written by, which said, “Pay It Forward has strong performances from Spacey, Hunt, and Osment, but the movie itself is too emotionally manipulative and the ending is bad.” This is not to say the movie is bad at being persuasive just because the movie is emotionally manipulative, and the fact that the ending is bad is purely opinionative. This shows the movie’s good use of pathos by using strong acting and a persuasive plot.

The plot of the movie is a school social studies assignment leads to acts of kindness that spread from city-to-city. When assigned to come up with some idea that will improve the world, a seventh grader boy Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) decides that if he can do three good deeds for someone and they in turn can "pay it forward" and so forth, then the world might be a better place.

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Initially the plan appears to fail, but it is indeed a success that is not immediately known by Trevor. The plan was traced back to it original source by a reporter (Jay Mohr) who received a brand new jaguar as a “pay it forward” gift when his car got totaled.

The initial people Trevor tries to help are a heroin addict (James Cavaziel) whom he brings home, lets him sleep in his garage, and gives him a little money to get his life together. The second is Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey) a badly scarred teacher who cannot accept a change of routine in his life. He then tries to help his poorly recovering alcoholic mother Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt). Lastly, he tries to stand up for his schoolmate who gets beat up after school on a daily basis. Both Mr. Simonet and Trevor share the same problem abusive father’s who beat their spouses, so they have common outlooks on life. Trevor fears for his mom, particularly because of his brutal alcoholic father (Jon Bon Jovi) who tries to move back in their home. Arlene also has mental anguish from her childhood with a homeless, alcoholic mother (Angie Dickinson), who helped the reporter trace the good deeds back to Trevor.

In one of the beginning scenes, Gene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) is a seventh grade social studies teacher. He asks the class, “What does the world want from you?” Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) answers, “Nothing.” Mr. Simonet replies, “You are absolutely right, you are in seventh grade you can’t drive, can’t vote, heck you can’t even go to the bathroom without a pass from me, but not forever, one day you will be free.” He continues, “But what if on that day your free, you haven’t prepared you are not ready and then you look around and you don’t like what the world is. What if the world is just a big disappointment?” One of the kids in the class replies, “We’re screwed!” Mr. Simonet says, “Unless, you take the things you don’t like about this world and you flip them upside down on their ass. You can start that today. This is your assignment extra credit it goes on all year long.” On the board written in chalk it says: Think of an idea to change our world and put it into Action! Everyone in the class complains about how weird, strange, and hard it is. Mr. Simonet then very slowly replies, “How about possible, it’s possible. The realm of possibility exists in each of you. So you can do it or you can just sit back and let it atrophy.”

This is where Trevor gets his motivation. The first persuasive purpose was to get people to think how such a simple idea can make a big difference. Trevor’s idea of “paying it forward” to change the world is an example of logos. It says if we pay it forward to three people, those three pay it forward, and so on, then theoretically it could change the world. Trevor establish ethos not by being some great thinker of his time, or by winning an award, but by getting derived credibility. He does it by being a truly caring and honest person who wants to change the world. Audiences trust a young innocent kid more than anyone else because he appeals to their ideas of “good”. This shows how pathos is being used to affect the emotions of people. Lastly, the other persuasive appeal being used is the narrative sequence of the film. The movie starts off with the reporter receiving an extraordinary gift in time of crisis, and he wants to find out why? He then tracks it down to a social studies assignment done by a seventh grader. This helps show that one small idea and act of kindness can spread so widely if people were just more aware and helped those in need.

Later in an interview with the reporter Trevor says, “The world is not exactly shit.” “Things can be changed, but only if people are not afraid.” The other persuasive goal was to get people to not be afraid to help others, and tell those people to help other like they were helped. This was shown with Trevor’s first beneficiary of kindness. When he invites a strange young man whom his homeless back to his house to eat a normal meal and have a place to sleep. This build ethos; anyone who invites a homeless drug addict in their house must really not be afraid. This shows he is not a hypocrite and helps build derived credibility. He also helps his mom get her life back together, even when Arlene did not want Trevor’s help he was persistent till she finally accepted it. His mom “pays it forward” by helping her mom get back on her feet, and the good deeds spread. This is an example of logos because it shows the audience the plan can work if you are not afraid.

The movie uses several devices to add to the persuasive appeal. The number one device used would be a play on the emotions of the audience or pathos. For example, when the mom slaps Trevor she realizes what years of abuse and alcohol has done to her. Now she understands that she really does need Trevor’s help even if it is from her own son.
Also, when they show the heroin addict walking across a bridge there is a woman about to jump off, and he approaches her to try to talk her out of it. She tells him that her life is not worth saving, but he responds, “How about saving my life and just have one cup of coffee with me.” This is a play on words, when he tells her not jumping will not only save her life but will also save his life.

Another scene was when Mr. Simonet who has been dating Arlene gets dumped for Trevor’s real father, who is still an abusive alcoholic. Mr. Simonet tells about how bad it affects Trevor, and how she cannot understand because it happened to him. He tells about how he ran away, but came back to protect his own mother. When he tried to break up a fight between his parents, and his father hits with a shovel, which knocks him unconscious and tries to burn him to death. This is where he gets his horrible scars all over his body. This scene is definitely a tearjerker. This is a way of building pathos on the subplot of the movie that spousal abuse not only affects the one getting hurt, but the children suffer silent repercussions as well.

Near the end of the movie the reporter finds Trevor and does an interview with him about the ideas behind “pay it forward”. The next scene he gets killed trying to protect his schoolmate from being beat up. Then for the last four minutes of the movie it is quite except for the song by Steve Earle “Open your Window”, a news reporter announcing that Trevor has died, and they play a little bit of his interview. This is used to make you not take your mind off Trevor, and to think about how even though he has passed don’t forget what he said about how to change the world. The movie wants you not to think of Trevor’s death as a reason to give up, but instead as reason to help those around us by being attentive of those in need. This is an extremely good use of pathos because you will want to cry and go out help people at the same time.

The target audience for this movie is everyone, but it does use a lot of stereotypes. For example, one of the people benefited by “Pay it forward” is this young black male, who turns out to be a drug using, gang member, that lies and steals. Another stereotype used is that all homeless people are drug-addicts or alcoholics; the first person Trevor helps and Trevor’s grandmother show examples of this. These two uses of stereotypes might hurt the movies logos towards these two groups. Yet, at the end of the movie people of all ages, race, and gender gather at Trevor’s home to put flowers and candles to mourn his death. This is done so that audiences will not think the filmmakers used a demographic audience analysis. They want to show that every type of person can use help because they know people are egocentric, and only want what will benefit them. At the same time they show that everyone needs to help each other not just their peers. The last closing seconds the camera slowly raises from ground level to high up in the sky showing all the cars coming from all around to pay their respect. This is to show how many peoples lives “pay it forward” has affected. This type of camera angle builds logos by using imagery to show that it is reasonable and evident enough to affect that many lives.

The movie makes you dislike only one group of people, but they are commonly disliked by society already. This husbands who are alcoholic, abusive towards their spouse and children, and come in and out of their family’s life to cause trouble. This is shown with Mr. Simonet the teacher who was beaten and burned by his father for defending his mother. It also takes place with Arlene McKinney who was abused as a child by different men that her mother brought home, and with Trevor watches as his mom keeps taking back his abusive alcoholic father. So overall, I do not think it will affect the persuasive appeal by damaging its logos.

In general the movie has a lot of persuasive tools used to build ethos, logos, and pathos. The movie clearly states its persuasive goals, that is to get people to think how such a simple idea can make a big difference, to get people to not be afraid to help others, and tell those people to help other like they were helped. These goals were accomplished easily with the great acting, and through the use of establishing credibility, providing evidence, convincing with reason, and using emotional appeal to capture the audience. The movie’s only flaw was in using stereotypical characters like all young black males are criminals, and all homeless people live on the streets cause the are either alcoholics or drug-addicts. Overall, the movie shows an accurate persuasive argument for helping change the world.

Someone does you a good turn. You pass it on to three other people. They pass it on. And what a wonderful world this will be. That's the theory behind "Pay It Forward," a movie that might have been more entertaining if it didn't believe it. It's a seductive theory, but in the real world, altruism is less powerful than selfishness, greed, nepotism, xenophobia, tribalism and paranoia. If you doubt me, take another look at the front pages.

Consider Las Vegas, the setting of the movie. If every person in trouble there paid it forward to three more people, there would be more Gamblers Anonymous members than gamblers. An intriguing premise, but not one that occurs to this movie--although Alcoholics Anonymous plays a supporting role and paying it forward is of course the 12th step.


The movie has its heart in the right place, but not its screenplay. It tells a story that audience members will want to like, but it doesn't tell it strongly and cleanly enough; it puts too many loops into the plot, and its ending is shamelessly soapy for the material. Two or three times during the film I was close to caving in and going with the flow, but the story lost the way and I was brought back up to the surface again.

Haley Joel Osment, the gifted young actor from "The Sixth Sense," stars as Trevor, a resourceful latchkey kid whose father has disappeared and whose mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), works two jobs as a Vegas cocktail waitress. She's a recovering alcoholic with a few relapses still to go. At school, Trevor is impressed by the grave, distant presence of his new teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), whose face is scarred by burns.

Mr. Simonet doesn't want to win any popularity contests. "Do I strike you as someone falsely nice?" he asks Trevor. "No," the boy replies thoughtfully, "you're not even really all that nice." But Trevor responds to the lack of condescension in the teacher's manner: Mr. Simonet has standards and applies them in the classroom. On the first day of school, he writes the year's assignment on the blackboard: Think of an idea that could change the world. Trevor thinks. Things happen in his life to help him think and guide his thinking, and before long his mother discovers that a homeless man (James Caviezel) is living in their garage. It was Trevor's idea to invite him in. Then he can pay it forward.

There are complications. One of Trevor's theories is that his mom and Mr. Simonet would both be a lot happier if they were dating each other. Mr. Simonet does not agree. Spacey does a wonderful job of suggesting the pain just beneath the surface of the character; the teacher's life is manageable only because he sticks to his routine. But Trevor plugs away, all but shoving the two adults toward each other. This is, unfortunately, the kind of self-propelling plot device that, once allowed into a movie, takes it over and dictates an obligatory series of events. Since it is self-evident that Trevor is right, we know with a sinking feeling that the screenplay must detour into tentative acceptance, hurt rejection, silly misunderstandings, angry retreats, confessions, tearful reconciliations and resolutions, all in the usual order.


The movie intercuts between the predictable progress of the romance and the uncertain progress of Trevor's pay-it-forward scheme. We meet various supporting characters who get involved in paying it forward, and the time line is not always clear. The movie opens with one of those off-the-shelf hostage crisis scenes that ends with a criminal crashing into a reporter's car, and a stranger giving the reporter a new Jaguar. He's paying it forward. Then we flash back to "four months earlier" and Trevor's first day of school, but soon we're back to the present again, as the reporter tries to track down the pay-it-forward stories, and the lawyer who gave away the Jaguar tells why.

This leads to another flashback: When the lawyer's daughter had an asthma attack and was ignored in an emergency room, he explains, a gun-waving African-American stabbing victim forced a nurse to give the kid oxygen and told him to pay it forward. It's an effective cameo, but it's awkward the way the movie cuts between scenes like that, Trevor's own setbacks and the tentative romance.

With a cleaner story line, the basic idea could have been free to deliver. As it is, we get a better movie than we might have, because the performances are so good: Spacey as a vulnerable and wounded man; Hunt as a woman no less wounded in her own way, and Osment, once again proving himself the equal of adult actors in the complexity and depth of his performance. I believed in them and cared for them. I wish the movie could have gotten out of their way.

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