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Pay It Forward

      Think of a way to change our world,
        and put it into ACTION.
Eugene Simonet is a social studies teacher who does not expect this year’s seventh grade class to be different from last year’s. “Eugene makes the same speech to his class each year hoping, but not quite expecting, that one of his students will take it to heart,” says Kevin Spacey. A man whose physical scars inform much deeper emotional scars, Simonet is nonetheless a passionate teacher. “He transfers his hope to his students, because he has no hope for himself. Emotionally, he is completely shut down.”

Director Mimi Leder, who garnered universal acclaim for the humanity she brought to the epic action films “Deep Impact” and “The Peacemaker,” explains, “Eugene has an assignment that he gives at the beginning of each school year for the past 12 years. The assignment is to think of a way to change our world and put it into action. He hopes, but doesn’t anticipate, that his students will take it seriously.”

One young student, Trevor McKinney, takes the assignment to heart. Leder notes, “Trevor takes this assignment very seriously because his own life is so troubled. His father is gone; he has had to grow up too soon. He needs some hope in his life. And he gets it from Eugene.”

Eleven year-old Trevor lives in a working class section of Las Vegas with his mother, Arlene. “Trevor’s mom works a lot and has some habits which infringe on her ability to take care of him, so he ends up taking care of himself most of the time,” says Haley Joel Osment, who follows up his acclaimed performance in “The Sixth Sense,” which also garnered the young actor an Academy Award nomination, with “Pay It Forward.” “He loves her and wants her to overcome her problems, but he knows it’s something she can’t do by herself. If she could, she would have done it by now.”

Helen Hunt, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her star turn in “As Good As It Gets,” plays Trevor’s mother, Arlene. “Arlene wants to be a good mother to Trevor,” says Hunt. “Her love for him is what helps her through her nights working as a waitress in a strip club and her days as a change girl in a casino. She’s trying to leave behind the bad habits that have plagued her all her life, for him. But the habits won’t let her go so easily.”

Trevor finds inspiration in an unlikely place – his social studies class. “Trevor has never had a teacher like Mr. Simonet,” says Osment, “a teacher that doesn’t just stand in front of the class and say, ‘OK, class, open your books to page one; we’re going to do the review questions at the bottom.’ Mr. Simonet actually talks to the class from his heart. He tells them what social studies is really about – it’s about you and the world.”

Eugene tells Trevor’s class that it is possible for one person to change the world. “It stirs something in Trevor that only a person like Eugene could,” says Osment. “The teacher has a key to unlocking what Trevor has inside. He inspires Trevor to come up with ‘pay it forward.’ It’s something Trevor can finally believe in, something he thinks will make his own life better.”

Osment explains Trevor’s idea of “pay it forward,” as “doing something for somebody that they can’t do for themselves. You just have to do that three times and the people you help each do it three times, then it gets bigger. It goes from three to nine to 27 and on and on and on.”

Leder feels that Eugene also sees a quality in Trevor that helps him look deeper within himself. “Eugene sees himself in Trevor,” she says. “He sees what he was as a boy, and what he could have been as a boy. Eugene is a man whose defenses are up totally, but this kid just breaks them down. Trevor doesn’t see his scars. He just sees who he is as a person.”

Producer Steve Reuther notes that Trevor’s first targets are his mother, his teacher and, through them, maybe himself as well. “Trevor is looking for a dad and a stable home,” Reuther says. “One of the three things he does to get ‘pay it forward’ started is to try to bring his mother and Eugene together. So, he tries to force the relationship, which doesn’t exactly work out for the best.”

But as Arlene begins to see the power in her son’s plan, she turns to Eugene for help in understanding him. “She is just amazed by her son,” says Hunt. “He has grown into such an introspective, thoughtful young man and she has been so busy. There is a side to him that she just doesn’t know but she wants to know, and she wants Eugene to help her understand him.”

“As the story progresses, Eugene starts to allow himself to be more open because of Trevor, and also because of his feelings for Trevor’s mother, Arlene,” says Spacey. “He begins to open up and allow himself to be loved.”

“These are two people that are completely wary of each other who are brought together by this little boy,” says producer Peter Abrams. “Trevor’s project is what initially brings them together and they start in this strange place of trying to talk about this boy who neither one understands. He wants them to try and understand themselves; he’s hoping to ‘pay it forward’ by trying to heal Mr. Simonet and his mother.”

Leder and the actors worked together to anchor these awakening characters in the harsh realities of their emotional lives. “This is a love story more than anything,” says Leder. “And a powerful love story because you can see the real dynamics that bring these people together. They are all outsiders in a way, people barely holding on who come together in a way that empowers them all.”

As Trevor struggles with his plan, ripples begin to be felt by others in his life. Trevor gives a young homeless man (Jim Caviezel) a place to sleep and take a shower. It touches an older homeless woman, Grace, played by Angie Dickenson. It even reaches a young reporter (Jay Mohr), who tries to track down what he believes to be the story of the century.

Unbeknownst to Trevor, “pay it forward” has actually broken out of its conception point in Las Vegas and is spreading across the nation.