The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2003, Pro-Youth Pages

Pay it Forward:

One scene says it all

Pay It Forward (2000) Starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, and Jon Bon Jovi. Written by Leslie Dixon. Directed by Mimi Leder.

Pay it Forward opens by introducing us to the most patronizing school teacher in the history of fiction. Strangely, the filmmakers expect us to like him.

This teacher (Kevin Spacey) begins the first lecture of his career by telling his students they are eager to get through middle school and join "the high school elite." Isn't it presumptuous for this middle-aged man to tell these children how they feel? He has yet to even meet them.

Spacey goes on to tell the students some of them will want to rush through middle school, closing their eyes to everything along the way. "Well, I'm here to tell you that is not an option in this class." Can we blame them for wanting to close their eyes when they are surrounded by such arrogant people?

Next, a student walks in. The student is no more than 30 seconds late, and he has missed nothing other than Spacey's patronizing. Nevertheless, Spacey chews him out. "To be late to your first class on your first day of school, what does that indicate?" Spacey grills him. "Perhaps what it indicates is a lack of respect. You see, I am going to be here every day for you. And so I expect you to be here for me. On time. No excuses."

Spacey and the filmmakers have overlooked something. The teacher is paid to be there on time. The students receive no money for attending school. In most schools, they do not even receive an education. Therefore, while Spacey has obligations to his students, they have no real obligations to him.

In most public K-12 schools, classrooms are locked until class begins. A student who arrives early must sit outside in the weather. Since exact timing does not happen in real life, every student must chose whether to be early or late. Spacey asks, what does it indicate when a student arrives 30 seconds tardy? Maybe it indicates self-respect. Maybe it indicates a modicum of dignity. These things, of course, are also "not an option" in Spacey's class.

"This class is social studies: you and the world," he tells them. "Yes, there is a world out there." Like they didn't know that? When Spacey says the word "yes," he implies the children were going to ask him, "There's a world?"

Indeed, the filmmakers themselves seem to believe 7th-graders know nothing except what is in their immediate surroundings.

Am I jumping to conclusions here? Am I underestimating the filmmakers? That question is answered a moment later when Spacey asks the class, "How often do you think about things outside this town?"

He gets blank stares. One girl volunteers that she sometimes thinks about going to the mall, which is two miles away.

These children all come from families with money, judging from their clothes and their haircuts. Are we supposed to believe none of these children have ever gone on a family vacation? Are we supposed to believe none of them have televisions in their homes, showing them places outside their town? Are we supposed to believe none have them have ever opened a book or accessed the internet?

Apparently, we are just supposed to believe children are stupid: blank slates waiting to be filled with the wisdom of some benevolent adult. This point is driven home when Spacey tells them, "It's best you start thinking about the world now," a statement resting on the presumption none of the students have thought about the world before.

Pay it Forward (Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment)

In real life, students would respond to this teacher by either tuning him out or possibly devising ways to retaliate for these insults. But in this film, the students gaze up at him thoughtfully, and the camera and music all imply he is awakening their little minds to their first thoughts.

"Okay, so we aren't global thinkers yet, but why aren't we?" Kevin Spacey asks.

Speak for yourself, Kevin! That would be my response, but student Haley Joel ("I see dead people") Osment gives the answer the filmmakers want. "Because we're 11." In the minds of these filmmakers, age is everything we need to know about a person, and when a person is 11, it means he is stupid and self-centered, at least until a benevolent adult opens his little mind to the world around him.

"Good point," says Spacey. He then goes on to ask the 11-year-old, "What does the world expect of you?"

Again Osment gives the answer the filmmakers want us to hear: "Nothing."

Nothing? It seems to me the world (or at least the American part of it) expects a hell of a lot from 11-year-olds. It expects them to wake up early enough to be on time for 8AM classes, it expects them to wait out in the cold for class to begin, it expects them to put up with insults from arrogant adults like the teacher Spacey portrays, it expects them to suffer indignity at every turn without ever expressing anger, it expects them to bear the workload of homework and the pressure of constant deadlines, and it expects them to plow though all this pressure without ever leaning on the crutch of alcohol. That's nothing?

The filmmakers have Osment say "nothing" because it pushes the message they want the audience to take away, that we adults are not pressuring children enough, that it's okay to pressure them even more without needing to feel guilt or shame for all the burden we put on their backs.

Kevin Spacey next informs the students, "You're stuck right here in the 7th grade. But not forever. Because one day, you'll be free." He says this like it is a decision he has made and is now announcing to the peons. And that is exactly how the students react, all cheering in relief at this good news. Like they're a bunch of idiots who never knew this before.

After all of these insults, Spacey now delivers the plot contrivance. He asks students to think of a way to change the world. He says this assignment is for extra credit only, yet every student moans like this is a burden. Why would they moan when it's only for extra credit? And why does every single student react the same way?

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered great advice for writers trying to create characters: "Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created nothing." When these filmmakers created the students in this class, they apparently began by deciding each student should be "the 7th-grader type." Having decided that, they figured their work was done. No need to give students individual personality traits. Those people are all alike. How do 7th-graders react when offered an assignment? the filmmakers asked themselves. They moan and groan. I know 'cause I saw that on a sit-com once.

Perhaps the students moaned at the extra credit assignment because the filmmakers did not know what "extra credit" means. This theory is validated later in the scene when Kevin Spacey informs the children that those who do not change the world will see their grades suffer. He isn't kidding.

Then he uses the word "atrophy." He waits for students to ask what the word means so he can feel important. When one student almost does, Spacey refuses to tell him. After all, why should a teacher ever impart information (i.e. teach)? Instead, he hands out dictionaries. With another display of presumption, he announces, "In this class, we are going to learn to love words. Any questions?"

Yeah, I have a few questions, Kev. What's your home address, and what kind of security apparatus do you have?

Here's another question. Does the Book of World Records have a category for most sucking per minute by an American film? Because we're only three minutes into this turkey, and already I'm wondering if the video store will give me a refund.

After this scene, does the film get better? I do not know, because I shut off my VCR before I even saw the opening credits. I suppose it is possible the film gets better. Maybe in the next scene, Haley Joel Osment returns to school with a gun and takes out Kevin Spacey.

"Now we can all see dead people."

Somehow I doubt it.