Haley Joel Osment


Pay It Forward


A Mimi Leder film
Screenplay by Leslie Dixon
Based on the Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Article by Debra A. McCampbell, KidActors

This year, both my dads died. The Braves didn’t even win their division, falling apart when it really counted, after a stellar season. It did start off really well for most of us, this year 2000. Even though most of us spent New Years Eve at home, “just in case”, Y2K was only a fizzle. The next day, the world seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It looked like this big-numbered year could be a great big turning point in some ways. In others, it felt like any other year, comfortable and fresh, will no mistakes in it yet.

But since February, I’ve had this little boy’s voice in the back of my mind asking, “Is the world just shit?” And later, his own answer to that same question --- no, it’s not.

Finally, the day has come when the voice of that little boy belongs to the most talented child working in film today, Haley Joel Osment. Now, the story of that boy resonates to the very core of my being. And it always will.

By now, the concept is familiar to most. An emotionally and physically scarred social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey) challenges his students to “Think of an idea to change our world and put it into ACTION.” One of his students, troubled latchkey kid, Trevor (Osment) takes the assignment to heart and cooks up a plan called Pay It Forward. Do three big favors for three people and then they each do three big favors for three other people, and so on. Although, Trevor’s classmates snicker at his idea, his teacher sees real possibility in it. He encourages Trevor and immediately wins the admiration of the fatherless boy. After Trevor attempts to help a homeless addict clean up and get a job, he sets his sights on his lonely teacher and his struggling alcoholic mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt). As only a child could imagine, he thinks that these two people can fix each other. It’s a disaster at first. But there’s magic in this simple concept and soon Trevor’s world does begin to change.

Set in Las Vegas, amid the broken dreams and desperate lives unique to that environment, this is a gritty story that somehow still manages to have a storybook quality to it. Witness the majestic shots of the mountains outside Trevor’s classroom. Watch as a sleek silver Jaguar zooms along a twisting desert road. Blue ribbons of clouds stretch across a darkening sky. You can almost smell the squalor of the homeless camp as you notice the pyramid of the Luxor Hotel & Casino rising in the background. And there are the castle turrets of The Excalibur as well. It is a sharply composed film in this aspect. I was also impressed with the way the characters were shot. The first time we see Trevor, he looks so small on the campus of his middle school. When this new teacher, Mr. Simonet (more on that name later) turns around to collective silence from his young charges, we see this man in the only place he feels comfortable in his own skin. He diffuses their unrest immediately, and engages Trevor.

People will talk about Kevin Spacey’s embodiment of a severely burn-scarred, gun-shy middle-aged virgin schoolteacher. It’s a wonderful performance. His warmest ever. He hinted at this kind of tenderness in his scenes with Mena Suvari in AMERICAN BEAUTY. Here, his man of letters is adorably reduced to a stammering puddle when he realizes his attraction to Arlene and tries to act on it by asking her to a real dinner date.

His is not the only winning performance in the film. Jim Caviezel’s courage in how willing he is to look utterly disgusting makes his character all the more endearing in his struggle. Helen Hunt, refreshingly only about two years younger than her leading man, also allows herself to seem so pathetic early on that you wonder why the authorities haven’t already removed her boy from her custody.

It was about this time last year when one name was on everyone’s lips when Oscars were mentioned. I think we’ll be hearing a lot of that talk repeated in the next month or so as this movie spreads into the consciousness. Haley Joel Osment returns with another knockout performance that will haunt your dreams for a long, long time. He has moments that are shattering, funny, and achingly real.

Osment creates a remarkable character, unlike any he has played before. His Trevor is a regular boy in difficult circumstances who somehow rises to meet a challenge that will change the lives of everyone who touches it. One of the strengths of the movie lies in his eerie believability. So grounded is he in this little kid’s reality that we cannot help being pulled into his world. Just listen to him answer the phone and realize it’s his mom. Watch him eat stale cereal with the homeless man he’s brought home just minutes after we first meet him. When he just can’t listen to his mom’s promises and lies anymore and he lashes out at her, hold onto your seat. It’s so raw, so perfect a moment, you hate that a slap has to ruin his chance to finally say what he needs to say to her. But the aftermath of that moment changes Arlene. Maybe even saves her life. She doesn’t take another drink.

One of the best scenes in the movie seems unlikely on paper. Spacey and Hunt sit on the couch, watching TV with Osment. Pretty soon, you see that the kid’s jacked up on wrestling. He starts jumping around, imitating holds, crashing into his beanbag chair, begging Spacey’s character to join his excitement and agree to take him to a match. Spacey tells him that instead he is going to get Encyclopedias for his birthday. Osment’s kid-sized horror is so hilarious and genuine, it seems like we’re eves dropping.

This is a movie about seeing things differently. Really looking, seeing the reality of the thing. How we view the world and everyone in it is a constant thread throughout. Take, for instance, our revulsion at the sight of Jerry. Arlene to Eugene: “You look good to me,” and, “Do you look down on me?” Trevor to Arlene: “I hate the way you look!” Eugene’s “You don’t see me!” And finally, Trevor says, “You have to watch people more,” before you can help them.

It’s about promises. The kind you get sick of hearing, those that are never kept. It’s about a boy who never gives up on people even when they seem continually determined to prove themselves unworthy of his love. There is one exception --- Trevor’s loser of a father. Even Eugene recognizes Ricky as nothing more than the sperm donor --- a guy who gave up his parent card long ago and makes no effort to redeem it, to connect with his son. Sadly, he just seems to see Trevor as a nuisance.

PAY IT FORWARD doesn’t present an easy world with easy conclusions but the real one that just keeps on breaking our hearts, no matter how hard we try. Yet somehow, we manage to get up everyday and start again. Try again to defeat the same old arduous tasks, maintain the same old arduous relationships, and make things just a little bit better for ourselves and those we love. Well, most of us do, anyway. It takes an enormous act of courage some days just to go out there into the world, doesn’t it? So how do we keep doing it, day after day? Because there’s still hope. And there’s still so much out there to explore. Fear can’t defeat us. Not as long as we love each other, watch over each other, protect each other. That’s Trevor’s idea. That we just help each other.

Some people will say the ending is out-of-left-field, over-the-top, and contrary to the plot. Nope. It is foreshadowed three times. If you miss them the first time you see the film, you’ll catch them the next. And if you think about it, no matter how painful it is, it does make sense.

** “Eugene Simonet” is a name chosen by Kevin Spacey for the character of Trevor’s teacher. In the novel on which the movie was based, he is named Reuben St. Clair. No one has yet explained why Spacey chose this name. I have a weird theory to share with you, just for fun. I think Eugene Simonet is an anagram. Haley Joel Osment’s father’s name is Eugene Osment. Take the name Eugene Simonet and scramble the letters, you get “I Eugene Osment”. What that means, I don’t know. But I have speculated that it’s Spacey’s tribute to The Kid. Kinda telling his dad, don’t worry about him. I’m looking out for him on this movie. Call me crazy. It’s possible….


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