Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter
Dodging complexity, liberation through dance and a family coming apart
With movie violence and sensationalism dragged in as pseudo-issues in the presidential campaign, Warner Brothers may reap an extra measure of favorable publicity by releasing Pay It Forward at this time. A lightweight inspirational film with a capable and attractive cast (Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey), the movie gets its title from the idea of "paying forward" to three others a kind act that someone has done for you.
Eleven-year-old Trevor (Osment), a middle-school student in Las Vegas, is seen at the outset passing through a metal detector at the same time as more trouble-prone classmates manage to get a knife through. "Paying forward" is Trevor's idea, in response to a class assignment from his new social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Spacey), who wants his young charges to observe the world around them and think of something that might change it for the better. Simonet's easy humor, and perhaps the line on his ravaged face, make an impression on the boy. As he rides home on his bicycle, going past down-and-out areas of town, his project begins to take shape.
Things soon turn a little too cute when Trevor gives his teacher a reason to visit him at home: The boy is trying to play cupid for Trevor's mother Arlene (Hunt) and Simonet.
"Pay It Forward" calls attention to the legacy of alcoholism, and there are reminders of the marginalization of the poor, but the film never grapples seriously with the complexities of "doing good." Shouldn't Simonet have related the idea of "paying forward" to the dangerous troublemakers at school? Isn't the likelihood of their brutalized childhood as worthy of treatment as Simonet's own story of his emotionally anguished childhood?
Idealistic audiences may be spurred to attempt acts of generosity by "Pay It Forward," but it is important to help them see the difference between contrived and authentic emotions. The ending is even worse, using the song "Calling All Angels" and the candle-illuminated faces of a crowd of young people to coerce an emotion that has not been honestly earned.
Billy Elliot could also be considered an inspirational film: We identify with a young boy's joy as he expresses himself in the liberating movements of dance. But director Stephen Daldry avoids the didactic impulse of "Pay It Forward," preferring to show us how the passion of 11-year-old Billy (Jamie Bell), an English miner's son in Durham, leads to a new life at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Billy's mother is dead, and most of the action takes place during a bitter 1984 strike in the mines in which his father (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (James Draven) are deeply involved. Both strenuously oppose Billy's involvement in ballet.
The strong if somewhat predictable showdown scenes between father and son are balanced by Daldry's eye for comic elements in the material, including roughedged family arguments, the mercurial relationship between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), his chain-smoking dancing teacher, and Billy's first glimpse of ballet -- in the gym where he sees little girls practicing in tutus.
There is a danger of sentimentality in Billy showing his teacher a farewell letter from his dead mother, but when Mrs. Wilkinson exclaims how wonderful his mother must have been, Billy protests: "She was just my mom." In this film, the sentiment is earned.
The photography is meaningful as well as stylish. …