By all external appearances, "Pay It Forward" should be pure sentimental slush. On the first day of school, cute seventh-grader Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) receives a tough homework assignment: "Think of an idea to change our world -- and put it into action." Instinctively, we prepare ourselves for a lukewarm bath of bumper-sticker philosophy modeled on Anne Herbert's dictum, "Practice random kindness and sensible acts of beauty."
But director Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact," "The Peacemaker") doesn't make pabulum of Catherine Ryan Hyde's 1999 novel of the same name. Working with a screenplay by Leslie Dixon ("The Thomas Crown Affair"), Leder moves the story from California to Las Vegas, making the desert city -- a community struggling for identity while pinning its hopes on the lure of wealth and/or vice -- a major character among the walking wounded who barely survive in its shadow.
Their emotional chaos proves to be Leder's focus. Trevor's tough-but-vulnerable single mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is a bartender and recovering alcoholic. Her scars -- cut by her booze-hound mom Grace (Angie Dickinson), disappearing husband Ricki (Jon Bon Jovi) and her own addictive personality -- run deep.
Dressed down-market and photographed in varying states of haggardness, Hunt pours a full measure of grit into her role. The former sitcom star easily conveys the psychic damage and complexities of a woman whose will to live seems to be driven by her love for her son. The one scene in which Arlene lashes out at Trevor in frustration is a genuine heartbreaker.
As Trevor's teacher, Eugene Simonet, Kevin Spacey is nearly a perfect match for Hunt. Eugene is an intellectual, trapped by time and circumstances in a job that earns him insufficient appreciation. Beneath his demanding exterior and strangely mottled skin is a soul full of genuine concern for his young charges, and a terrible secret or two about his own past.
The educator's transformation -- from a traumatized, routine-driven survivor to a man who's nearly reborn through the genuinely expressed affections of another -- is flawlessly realized by Spacey. Those who were taken in by the actor's Academy Award-winning turn in last year's "American Beauty" will be similarly thrilled by the sense of discovery he offers here.
Arlene, Eugene and Grace are among those whose lives intersect through the path of young visionary Trevor. Rising to the challenge of the aforementioned homework assignment, he posits the bold idea of "paying it forward": spreading a little love in the world by doing three outrageously good deeds for three people, each of whom will do the same for three others, and so on. Dogged reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) and a homeless man named Jerry (James Caviezel) also feel the effects of Trevor's program, a task the boy approaches with a missionary's zeal (though his efforts initially meet with inconsistent results).
Osment easily lives up to the acclaim and Oscar nomination he garnered for 1999's "The Sixth Sense"; his work as a messiah of altruism is imbued with layers of subtlety and detail.
"Pay It Forward" slips into the dreaded sentimentality only briefly, succumbing to a bit of emotional manipulation (and allowing Leder to pour on the Christ-figure symbolism) in a manner that many viewers may find disturbing. But the remaining 95 percent of the movie is so inspired that its audiences may nonetheless be inclined to take Trevor's lead and extend a little grace to the director -- by encouraging a few friends to reward her work with their own dollars. It wouldn't be misplaced.