SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 to Present & Nevada;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Mother/Son; Families in Crisis; Education; Disabilities;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring; Citizenship.

AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence;

Drama; 2000; 123 minutes; Color. Available from

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


A teacher in Las Vegas assigns his 7th-grade students a project: think of a way to change our world and put it into action. Trevor, one of the students, decides that he will take three actions that make a difference in the lives of others and ask each of those people to do the same for three other people.


Selected Awards:



Featured Actors:

Kevin Spacey as Eugene Simonet; Helen Hunt as Arlene McKinney; Haley Joel Osment as Trevor McKinney; Jay Mohr as Chris Chandler; James Caviezel as Jerry; Jon Bon Jovi as Ricky McKinney; and Angie Dickinson as Grace.



Mimi Leader.


This movie celebrates helping others and can fuel interest in community service, a concept that has become a part of the graduation requirements for most schools. It provides opportunities for discussion and writing assignments associated with the motivation for generosity and exercising good judgment.

Students can meet standards in writing and critical thinking with assignments that provoke in-depth analysis of the problematic aspects of pay-it-forwardism as shown in the movie and can exercise creativity in their own application of the concept.


Scantily clad women undulate at the seedy Las Vegas bar in which Arlene, Trevor’s mother, works. Arlene slaps her son. In one scene, Arlene and Mr. Simonet are in bed but there is no nudity and no suggestive movements. There is infrequent profanity.


You may want to ask your children what they would do were the opportunity to pay forward three times presented to them.


The strengths of the film include: (1) Each of the three main characters wages a valiant battle against the vicissitudes of their lives. Trevor tries to solve the problems of his alcoholic mother and create the family he always wanted. Arlene, the mother, hits bottom and stops drinking. Mr. Simonet, the teacher, is a deeply injured individual who learns through love to open himself to others. Each role is an illuminating study in real character types. (2) The main characters all practice forgiveness in their personal relationships. (3) Trevor’s response to his teacher’s challenge is creative and genuine. It recognizes that we should go out of our way to help others and that when someone does something for us, we should return the favor to someone else, and give back more. It also acknowledges that people can make a difference in the lives of others.

Pay-it-forwardism is a concept with severe limitations. Its focus on helping individual people can cause one to lose sight of the fact that there may be many others with far greater needs. Emphasis on the satisfaction of doing the good deed can lead a person into danger, when calling for help or working through established and experienced agencies would be safer or more effective. An emphasis on three good deeds may distract from the truth that ethics is something we live every day in all aspects of our lives. An ethical life isn’t built on just three actions.

The movie has several problems of its own that are distinct from the limitations of the pay-it-forward concept. First, the ending implies that Trevor and his effort to encourage morality are too good for this world and that we can’t really “change our world” for the better. That’s not true. People are changing the world for the better every day in ways large and small, dramatic and undramatic. Second, the movie doesn’t clearly show the mother going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in her effort to become sober. (She is in fact in AA as the scene with her sponsor shows. But this is almost completely submerged in the film.) Few alcoholics can stay sober without the support of a twelve-step program such as AA.

A Critical Look at Situations in Which a Character in the Film Tries to Pay It Forward

Using common sense and standard concepts of ethics education, let’s analyze some of the situations in the film in which a character tried to pay it forward.

1. Bringing a Homeless Man Home: Trevor invites a homeless man to eat, shower, and sleep at the house that Trevor shares with his mother. Trevor knew nothing about this man, called Jerry in the movie, except that he was homeless. It turned out that Jerry was a drug addict. That’s not surprising. A significant number of homeless people are drug addicts. Drug addicts often steal to support their habit. They steal from anyone, including their best friends, their families, and people who try to help them. A drug addict trying to get money for a fix is a dangerous person. Trevor put himself and his mother at serious risk by inviting Jerry into the house. Trevor also made his mother and himself vulnerable to physical or sexual assault.

The flaw in Trevor’s decision was that he didn’t think through how his actions affected his own values and those of the other stakeholders in his decision, such as his mother. Focused on paying it forward and being caring to Jerry, Trevor forgot to take care of his mother and to respect her value of having security and privacy in her home. This is a typical failing for a young teenager. A mature person might have realized that the decision to bring Jerry home involved a conflict among ethical values (caring for Jerry vs. caring for himself and his mother and respecting his mother’s values of security and privacy). Trevor should have applied what we call The Rule of the Most Honoring Choice to help him sort out what he should do.

Another flaw in Trevor’s thinking was that in his rush to do a good deed, he failed to consider other, safer, more effective alternatives. Determining the effectiveness of a plan of action is an important element of any ethical decision. There were safer and more effective ways for Trevor to help the homeless. Certainly Las Vegas has people and agencies experienced in helping drug addicts and those on the street. Trevor could have volunteered to work for one of those agencies, compromising neither his own safety nor that of his mother.

In the movie, Jerry didn’t steal from Trevor or his mother, nor did Jerry hurt them, but that was sheer luck. It had more to do with Jerry’s internal cycles and the fact that he wasn’t desperate for a fix during that particular time.

2. Giving a Homeless Man Money for Clothing: Many homeless are addicts. When most addicts are given money, they use it to buy more drugs. The money ends up furthering their addiction, not helping them. Again, if Trevor had wanted to befriend and help a homeless person he should have worked through an established program with a proven track record. Ethical decisions are effective decisions and this action failed that test. At the very least he could have purchased the clothing and given it directly to Jerry.

3. Aiding and Abetting the Escape of a Criminal Fleeing the Police: Trevor’s grandmother “pays it forward” by helping a thief flee from the police. Her actions fail the Golden Rule. What if someone had hurt or stolen from Trevor or her daughter? She also breaks the law and violating the ethical precept of responsibility. In addition, if asked, the grandmother certainly would not want everyone to help people fleeing from the police. Her actions fail the test of universality. The grandmother was an alcoholic and apparently high at the time. Alcohol not only dulls a person’s reflexes but it impairs their ability to make judgments. Obviously, the grandmother’s decision was not well-thought-out and cannot be condoned.

4. Giving a Jaguar to the Reporter: The reporter didn’t need a Jaguar; he needed a ride and, at most, reimbursement for the deductible on his car insurance. Anything more was an unnecessary gift to the reporter’s insurance company which had already figured the loss in its underwriting and had already collected premiums to cover that loss. If the owner of the Jaguar wanted to help people, he could have helped many more people who were much needier by giving the reporter a ride, paying his deductible, and selling the Jaguar. He could have used the extra money to fund a shelter for the homeless or to contribute to famine relief. Think of how many lives he would have been able to affect. In his rush to make the dramatic gesture of giving the car to the reporter, the lawyer ignored the values of these other stakeholders.

5. Shooting Up the Hospital to Get Care for a Girl Having an Asthma Attack: What about the risk that a ricochetting bullet would hit someone and kill or injure them? What about all the people frightened half to death by the shooting? In the rush to help one person, the man with the gun ignored the values of all the other people in the room. What about the law that prohibits these types of actions and his responsibility to obey those laws? There must have been a better way to draw attention to the plight of the asthmatic girl (effectiveness again). Or what of the gunman’s duties to himself to keep his freedom and stay out of jail? Those are important values as well and he himself is a stakeholder.

This scene plays into the fantasies of every person who has waited too long in an emergency room. It’s well-acted, well-directed, and quite funny, but the shooter’s method of paying-it-forward certainly shouldn’t be emulated.

6. Trying to Help Mom by Setting Her Up with the Teacher/Trying to Help a Lonely Man Find Love with Trevor’s Mom: “Paying-it-forward” is supposed to be motivated only by a desire to help another person. However, one of Trevor’s “pay-it-forward” actions was primarily motivated by self-interest. Trevor wanted a real dad and an intact (or as close to intact as possible) family. He wanted someone in the home to protect his mother and himself from his alcoholic, abusive father. Trevor’s actions are classic ploys by an unhappy child trying to fix his dysfunctional family. While he genuinely believed that his mother and Mr. Simonet would be happy together, his actions were not selfless. But then again, does every good deed have to be self-less?

7. Jerry Fixing Arlene’s Truck. This was a good example of “paying-it-forward” except that Jerry should have told Arlene in advance. He almost got himself shot. On the other hand, it could be said that he was simply paying her back for Trevor’s hospitality.

8. Jerry Convincing the Woman Not to Jump Off the Bridge. This also a good example of “paying-it-forward.” It also makes the point that saving someone else’s life might just start you on the road to saving your own, although there’s always much more to saving your own life than helping someone else.


Teachers may want to consider the following student handout as in-class or homework reading. Just clone the text onto a word processing document.




The world would be a better place if everyone had a personal goal of helping three other people in an important way. While the movie gets a bit carried away with itself, no claim is really made that “Pay It Forward” presents a complete ethical system. The following comments will be helpful in putting the pay-it-forward concept into perspective and deriving the most benefit from the movie.

1) A risk of paying it forward is that in an effort to help one person, you will put other stakeholders at risk of injury. (Examples are: Trevor, when he brought home a stranger and placed himself and his mother at risk; and the man who shot up the hospital emergency room to get care for the asthmatic girl, putting everyone else in the ER at risk from a ricocheting bullet and scaring them). In fact, in the movie “pay-it-forwardism” was used to justify wrongful conduct, e.g., Trevor’s grandmother, when she aided and abetted the escape of a thief and when that man shot up the ER.

2) Paying it forward applied without a sense of balance can lead to helping someone beyond their real needs and ignoring the needs of other stakeholders. (Example: the lawyer who gave the Jaguar to the reporter; the reporter needed transportation home that night and perhaps it would have helped him pay the deductible on his insurance policy; he didn’t need a new sports car; there were many people who had more urgent needs for the lawyer’s charity than this reporter).

3) As with any good deed, an act of paying it forward can be at least partially self-serving rather than purely altruistic in that the actor seeks nothing more than a sense of accomplishment with all of the psychological benefits that such a feeling brings. (As Jerry said to the woman about to jump off of the bridge, “Have a cup of coffee with me. Save my life.”). But this has dangers, because the actor’s self-interest may influence his decision-making in such a way that the benefit is not as good as it appears and perhaps there’s no benefit at all.

The pay-it-forward concept tells us that we can make a difference in the lives of others and it glorifies random acts of kindness. It tells us that when someone is kind to us, it’s a good idea to repay mankind several times over by doing good things for others.


Comments Before and After:

Before showing the movie ask the class to evaluate the various ways that characters in the movie paid it forward.

Suggest that interested students read the book! The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde. No movie can include all of the incidents, descriptions and character development contained in a good novel. Recommend that students interested in the movie read the book, too. For an extra credit project, students can compare the two versions of the story.

At the end of the movie, tell students that there is a Pay It Forward Foundation with a website showing instances of paying it forward.


After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.


1. What did you think of the different acts of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie?

Suggested Response:

The purpose of this question is to get students to realize that many of the acts of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie were problematic and that one must think about their actions to reduce the risk of unintended consequences. First, there were at least two instances of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie that were simply unethical: when Trevor’s grandmother aided and abetted the escape of a criminal fleeing the police and when that same man, paying it forward, shot up the hospital emergency room to get quick care for the girl having an asthma attack. Second, there were some instances of pay-it-forwardism that were motivated by self-interest, as when Trevor tried to get his mother together with Mr. Simonet. Trevor wanted a stable male in the household who could serve as the father he had never had. Then there were the actions which were not intelligent and exposed others to risk of harm, as when Trevor invited the homeless man into the house to take a shower.


2. Have you ever seen people apply the concept of doing good for others because others have done good for you applied outside of the film, either in your own life or in mass media? Describe that situation.

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary depending upon the experiences of the students. You may want to mention the phenomenon of how drivers passing over the bridges in San Francisco often pay for the car following them in a “random act of kindness.”


3. Does the story’s ending, Trevor’s death, help promote the film’s theme or work against the concept of paying it forward?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Any idea well argued is acceptable. Some students may see his death as a warning; others may see it as a reason to continue the practice of pay-it-forwardism. Some may believe that a better ending would have been to have Trevor continue to live as a normal human being just like all other practitioners of paying it forward.


4. Describe two risks in focusing on paying it forward as a guide to acting ethically. Tell us how these can lead to unethical conduct and give examples from the film or from real life.

Suggested Response:

See IS “PAY IT FORWARD” A PRESCRIPTION FOR A BETTER WORLD? in the Helpful Background section above.


5. Trevor died in an attempt to do a good deed. What does this tell you about paying-it-forward?

Suggested Response:

There may be risk to what you do. If you are trying to pay-it-forward, you need to calculate the risk and the effects on your loved ones and yourself if the risk comes to pass.


6. Assume Trevor had lived. Can you see some problems in the future from Trevor’s pay-it-forward act of getting his mother together with Mr. Simonet. What are they?

Suggested Response:

Any reasoned response will be acceptable. Here is an example, when Arlene and Simonet’s relationship takes off, Trevor might feel left out and slighted. This will become acute if he is ever disciplined or punished by the two of them. He might think, “Hey, I got you two together. It’s not fair for the two of you to gang up on me.”


7. Do you think about what is going on in the outside world when you are not in your social studies class? Tell us some of the things that you think about.

Suggested Response:

The desired response is that the students think about the world outside.


8. What does the world expect of you?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer but a great answer would be, to live morally and leave the world a better place than it would have been had you not lived.


9. Do you like what the world is? Describe three things about the world that inspire your and three things that disappoint you.

Suggested Response:

If the world is disappointing we need to work to change it.


Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Mother/Son; Families in Crisis;

1. Arlene “hit bottom” when she slapped Trevor. What is “hitting bottom” and what is its significance in a person’s battle against alcoholism?

Suggested Response:

“Hitting bottom” is the low point that some alcoholics reach before they become convinced that their life will be intolerable unless they stop drinking. For each person it’s different. Some people don’t hit bottom at all and their alcoholism eventually kills them.


2. The movie fails to show one important part of Arlene’s battle to stay sober. What was it?

Suggested Response:

The movie doesn’t show Arlene attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings or some type of program. It’s very difficult for alcoholics to stay sober without the support of a 12 step program such as AA. The daily AA meeting becomes a focus of their life. (We know that Arlene was in AA because she had a sponsor and the dialog contains references to several AA precepts. One example is that Arlene was not supposed to start a new romantic relationship until she had been sober for a year.)


3. Could the family of Trevor and Arlene have healed itself while Arlene was drinking?

Suggested Response:

No. Trevor would have turned into a codependent or he would have left Arlene, emotionally or physically. recommends that every child in any family in which there is any history of heavy drinking or alcohol abuse be taken to an open AA meeting beginning at the age of 12 or 13. This should be repeated every year or so. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Try to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety. Tell the kids that if they ever have trouble with alcohol, the twelve steps of AA are a way that they can avoid the destructive effects of alcoholism. For more information, see Handout on Alcohol and How it Affects Us.



4. What did you think of Mr. Simonet as a teacher?

Suggested Response:

He appeared to be able to inspire his students. At least he inspired Trevor.



5. How did Mr. Simonet deal with his disabilities before he met Arlene?

Suggested Response:

He had carved out a safe place, a “thing I do every day. It’s all I’ve ever known. It’s routine. It’s what I have. It’s what I want.” Until Trevor tried to get him together with Arlene, Mr. Simonet did not dare to try to have a relationship with a women or get involved with people on a personal basis.


6. In this movie, what was the danger for Mr. Simonet?

Suggested Response:

See response to the preceding question. The risk was that he would not have allowed himself to reach out to Arlene or accept her advances due to fear of rejection.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


1. The following is a conversation from the movie Contact between characters David Drumlin and Ellie Arroway. It takes place after Arroway has told the truth about her lack of belief in a Supreme Being to the commission which was selecting the person to ride the space-time machine. Drumlin lied to the committee saying that he believed in a Supreme Being when he really didn’t. Drumlin was selected to ride the space-time machine because it was felt that since most of the people on earth believed in a Supreme Being, mankind’s representative should as well. The following exchange raises the question of the reason for ethics in the first place.


DRUMLIN: Of course. Ellie, I know you must think this is all really unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is that I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the final line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.


ELLIE: Funny; I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.


Do you agree with Arroway or with Drumlin? Please justify your answer.

Suggested Response:

Obviously, Arroway is right. Drumlin is arguing that the ends justify the means. Most people, religious and non-religious, base their ethics on an understanding that relationships and society work better when people take principled actions. These people agree with the Arroway character that life is what we make of it and they derive a sense of satisfaction by acting morally. Many of us act ethically because we feel good about ourselves when we do and bad about ourselves when we don’t. Some religious people believe that a Supreme Being has prescribed ethical rules of conduct. Interestingly enough, the ethical principles in most cultures have many similarities. These “consensus” values have several formulations. uses the Six Pillars of Character.


Some of the discussion questions can serve as writing prompts. Additional assignments include:


1. Like Mr. Simonet, assign the following extra credit project: “Think of an idea to change our world and put it into effect. Your suggestion should be both practical and ethical. It does not have to change the whole world in a major way, just a part of it.” Tell students not to try to come up with something as broad and all-encompassing as pay-it-forwardism and that if we all do little things to help others, they will add up to something very big. The project can be as simple as volunteering at a food bank or to serve meals for the homeless. All ideas need to be first cleared with their parents and with the teacher, before they are put into effect. Students should keep a journal of the progress of their project and write an essay about the experience.


2. Write a personal narrative about a time when you, or someone you know, did something significant for someone in need. You may even write about a time when an animal was the recipient of your efforts.


3. There are several adults in this movie with terrible scars. For one of them, Mr. Simonet, some of the scars are on the outside. Most adult characters in this film have scars on the inside. Name at least two other characters who have scars on the inside and write an essay describing those scars and how they contributed to the story told by the movie. Note to Teachers Mr. Simonet has scars on the inside, as well as on the outside. Arlene’s experiences with alcoholism and with men are her scars. Arlene’s mother and Jerry have also been scarred by their addictions.


4. Do you find junior high (middle) school to be “a hellish shaky bridge you must get across” in order to go to high school? Describe in a short essay what that phrase means to you in your own life.


5. Separate students into groups of three or four and assign each group one of the instances of pay-if-forwardism shown in the movie. Ask them to answer the question, “Was this an ethical action?” In the alternative, this task can be assigned as an essay topic.


See also, Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.


The novel from which the movie was made, Pay it Forward, by Catherine Ryan Hyde, is fun to read for those who liked the movie. The story line is a bit different from the movie. Students can compare the characterizations, the examples of pay-it-forwardism, and the endings.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

This is Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden.

This Guide was last revised on August 15, 2012.

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