Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) is an eleven-year-old who lives in Las Vegas with his working-class mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who is a recovering alcoholic. She works hard at two jobs to support her son but feels that it is a losing battle. Trevor is a latch-key kid who often has to take care of himself.
This seventh-grader's spirits are lifted when on the first day of school Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), his new social studies teacher, gives the class an extra credit assignment: "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action." Whereas the rest of the class has trouble looking past the teacher's badly scarred face, Trevor realizes that he now has been given a moral adventure.
The energetic and idealistic boy decides he will do a good deed for three people, something they can't do for themselves, and then will ask each one of them to "pay it forward" by doing similarly difficult big favors for three others. Trevor begins by helping out a homeless man (James Caviezel), a heroin addict. He gives him lodging for a night, a chance to take a shower, and some money so the fellow can get it together and look for a job.
Trevor's second mission is to bring the lonely Eugene together with his mother. Only trouble is that they both must deal with old tapes of fear, self-doubt, and lack of self-esteem. And to make matters worse, Trevor's physically abusive and alcoholic father (Jon Bon Jovi) returns home. The boy's third project is to help out a weak classmate at school who is always being attacked by bullies.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles reporter, Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), is knocked for a loop when a lawyer (Gary Werntz) gives him his Jaguar after seeing that his old Mustang has been totaled. Tracking the rich man down, he learns that his action was part of paying forward the kindness he received from an African American (David Ramsey) in a hospital emergency room. That person, in turn, was given a new lease on life by an alcoholic lady (Angie Dickinson) who lives in her car in a desolate area outside Las Vegas.
Eventually, Chandler's investigations lead him to Trevor and his innovative "pay it forward" project that has already had more of a positive impact on the world than he had realized. The reporter does an interview with the boy on his twelfth birthday. Soon afterwards Trevor is back at his good work helping out his classmate at school.
This inspiring and imaginative film is based on a novel of the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Mimi Leder (ER, China Beach, Deep Impact) directs from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon. It speaks directly to the greatest social problem and character disorder of our times incivility. Wherever one looks in the home, on the street, or at work everyone is consumed with taking care of number one. Small acts of courtesy, it seems are a thing of the past.
Pay It Forward dares to point us in a different direction. It boldly reveals that kindness and putting others first are acts of moral beauty. It concretely proclaims that each person can make a difference in the world by doing good. And it reveals that although we'll probably never know the effects of our acts of compassion, that's okay. All of the world's religions point out that the reward is in the act itself.
The DVD contains an audio commentary by director Mimi Leder, a 13-minute featurette, and the theatrical trailer.