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Pay It Forward (PG-13)
Warner Bros.

This much-anticipated star vehicle for Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment, also starring Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey, is surprisingly moving and satisfying, right up to the end when the script and the director's ambitions eat (and ruin) all that has gone before.

Pay It Forward is a simple family tale, a love story whose characters would not be nearly so interesting if they were not so well-played by the primary cast members. Osment is Trevor, a seventh-grader who is a latchkey kid, weary of his mother's problems with alcohol and an abusive father who shows up when he feels like it.

Eugene Simonet, a scar-faced Kevin Spacey, is Trevor's social studies teacher who, on the first day of class, asks the room full of squirming adolescents: "What does the world mean to you? What does the world expect of you?" Simonet gives his class an extra-credit, yearlong assignment that, at once, confuses and challenges them: Think of an idea to change our world -- and put it into action.

Trevor comes up with an ingenious solution that explains the film's elusive title. Do a good deed -- something that is hard, something that someone can't do for himself -- then ask that person to pay it forward to three others in need. The result is an exponential eruption of good-deed-doing -- an idea that soon spreads from Trevor's hometown of Las Vegas to California where it is picked up by nosy reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr). In parallel plots -- one moving forward, one moving backward -- Trevor's experiments with the notion of pay it forward are acted out against Chris' attempts to find its source.

This structure is troublesome for much of the film, though when it comes together at the end, it makes sense. But far more compelling than any fancy plot tricks is Trevor's second good deed, introducing his teacher, Eugene, to his mom, Arlene.

Hunt plays the hard-ridden, recovering alcoholic, single mom with grit and heart. Her hair and makeup make you squirm, as does her too-tight wardrobe, but she's superb at portraying Arlene's basically mistrusting nature, her brutal struggles with booze, and her newly discovered faith in her extraordinary little boy. And as Eugene lets down some of his guard, letting Arlene in, their dance of romance is sweet and endearing.

Spacey, too, gives it his best, even through some awkward confessional moments. Pay It Forward is most successful when it allows humor to mingle with sorrow and shame, scene after scene, and allows its actors to portray real, fallible humans.

But instead of ending as a love story with a social message that likely would have moved many young viewers, Pay It Forward succumbs to grandiosity, insisting on being a forced religious allegory. I have rarely been so disillusioned by the ending of a film, though I understand the motivation of those involved.

What could have been an uplifting tale depicting humans, especially kids, as capable moral participants, ultimately absolves all of us of responsibility by insisting that the power to change the world lies in some airy-fairy force larger than any or all of us. Any power that the film possessed in its lovely characterizations and charming story is quickly released like a gush of air from a balloon.

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