At a Calvin Coolidge High School pep rally, white student Wayne Divine spots black student Shelia Smith and, smitten, accepts her offer of a marijuana cigarette. Soon, the two are in love, despite malicious comments from both the black and white students. One day in the park, Wayne expresses his desire to travel to California, which Shelia shares. She takes him to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where Wayne is temporarily intimidated by the stares of the other customers, invoking Shelia's disdain.
When she then asks him to help finance a drug deal, Wayne agrees to consider it. At home, Wayne's middle-class father Archer sneers at what he sees as his son's hippie mentality and lack of a work ethic. Wayne is continually frustrated that he cannot afford the insurance on his beloved car, despite his weekend jobs, but his father remains unsympathetic. During dinner, when Archer calls civil rights activists "marching coons," Wayne expresses his disgust, earning his father's ire. The next day at school, Wayne and Shelia ignore the fire drill, prompting Shelia's best friend Sharon to upbraid her for ceasing to care about her future.
When Wayne then brings up the drug deal to Shelia, she acts disinterested, and soon after, Wayne is caught cutting the fire drill and brought before the principal, who lectures him about his sub-par grades and suspends him for two days. Soon after, Shelia forges Archer's signature on a bank slip so Wayne can withdraw his money, which they pool with hers in order to have enough to buy the marijuana. Later, when Wayne's parents leave for a party, he takes his car, which he is forbidden to drive, and heads to Shelia's, surprised to discover that she lives in a luxurious home in a wealthy neighborhood.
Inside, Wayne meets Shelia's mother and physician father Craig, and although he finds them kind, she later disdains her father for being "too white" and leaving his poor Southern hometown. They head to a black nightclub in the city, where Shelia's contact is revealed to be in jail, but another pusher, attracted to Shelia, offers to supply them. After making the arrangements, Wayne refuses to smoke the dealer's hash, and as a result, Shelia angrily directs him to drop her at the Langdenmeyers' house, where Sharon, who is there babysitting, is throwing a party. Wayne states that perhaps they "should dissolve the partnership" but accompanies her there, where she apologizes by dancing for him sensually.
Later, in the posh bathroom, he gets high and they begin to make love, until Sharon interrupts them. Because the partygoers need more alcohol, Wayne takes Sharon in the Langdenmeyers' car to his house to steal some. After a brief spat between them, Wayne backs the car out of the driveway too quickly, hitting another car. He speeds off and stops at a nearby store, and upon surveying the damage to the car, hatches a desperate plan to flee to California. When Shelia agrees to go with him, he rushes home to pack in secret, but there discovers that his parents have passed the Langdenmeyers', seen his car there, driven it home and hidden his keys as punishment. Wayne is walking to meet Shelia at the local diner when he is picked up by a friend named Vice.
When Vice stops to drag race with another student, the police give chase, and although Wayne is terrified of being caught, Vice eventually eludes them. As a rainstorm begins, Wayne reaches the diner, where Shelia awaits to inform him that Langdenmeyers have called the police about their car. Sharon drives them to the bus depot, furious with Shelia for her newly acquired rebellious attitude, but Shelia tells her friend that she cannot understand unless she gets high with her. In response, Sharon declares that Wayne is using Shelia for her money, but Shelia retorts that she is leaving to save her life. At the bus station, white and black passengers alike stare at the couple, and the ticket agent demands that they buy a ticket or be thrown out. Wayne buys the cheapest fare, then, spotting the police, hides in the rest room. Upon returning, he finds Shelia sharing a coffee with a black sailor and jealously demands that she leave with him.
They take the bus to the next town and then hitch rides until they reach a Southern town called Aurora. There, some boys stop to offer them a ride, but when Wayne sees that they are drunken hillbillies, he politely refuses. The boys try to wheedle them into accepting, then speed off, hurling a racial epithet at Shelia. Wayne tries to soothe her, but she declares that he cannot know how she feels, and they argue until suddenly the hillbillies return.
Wayne and Shelia hide in the field off the side of the road, but the men finally spot them and give chase, beating Wayne mercilessly until he loses consciousness. The next morning, he awakens and remembers the events of the past evening: Wayne revives from the hillbillies' beating and struggles to find the boys, who have taken Shelia to an abandoned building nearby to rape her. Wayne comes upon them as they finish and jump into their car. When he throws a brick through the front window of the car, they stop, and he jumps the driver but is soon overpowered, and they once again beat him into unconsciousness. Back in the present, Wayne finds Shelia still sitting in the building, and they can do nothing but stare at each other in wordless horror.
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