Thirteen-year-old Benjie (Larry B. Scott) lives in a historic but declining neighborhood with his mother Sweets (Cicely Tyson), his grandmother Mrs. Bell (Helen Martin), and his mother's boyfriend Butler (Paul Winfield), a maintenance worker and former musician. Benjie appears to be well adjusted, living in a decent house with a loving family, getting good grades in school, and spending time with his friends Jimmy Lee and Carwell. However, internally he struggles with the pain of being abandoned by his biological father, his mixed feelings about Sweets and Butler, and a growing awareness of racism in society. At Sweets' urging, Butler tries to forge a fatherly relationship with Benjie, who rejects his overtures.
When Benjie tries marijuana with his friends, he enjoys the high, and soon moves on to injecting heroin provided by local drug dealer Tiger. Benjie is attracted by Tiger's flattery and glamorous lifestyle, and the heroin initially helps him cope with his feelings. He soon becomes addicted, and must support his habit by stealing from his family and delivering drugs for Tiger. After a violent confrontation with Butler over his behavior, Benjie nods out at school and is sent to a drug rehabilitation hospital, where he undergoes therapy to learn to honestly express his suppressed thoughts and feelings. He is finally released from the hospital, only to learn that Carwell has died at age 12 from a lethal shot of heroin.
As Benjie struggles to stay clean, he and his family also struggle to communicate more honestly with each other, which often leads to family arguments. Unable to deal with Benjie, Butler moves out, but he and Sweets love each other too much to stay apart, and they reconcile. After Butler saves Benjie from a near-fatal accident, Benjie finally begins to trust and accept Butler as his father, and Butler refers to him as "my son".
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