In suburban Chicago, teenagers Jade Butterfield and David Axelrod fall in love after they are introduced by Jade’s brother Keith.
The Butterfields’ bohemian lifestyle, for which they’re well-known in their community, allows Jade and David to develop an all-consuming and passionate relationship, including allowing the two to have sex in Jade’s bedroom. In contrast to the openness of her family, David’s home life is dull; his parents are wealthy liberal political activists who have little interest in their son’s life.
One night, Jade’s mother, Ann sneaks downstairs, and catches Jade and David making love by the fireplace. Ann starts living vicariously through them but her husband, Hugh, watches the couple with increasing unease. Jade’s nightly trysts begin to negatively impact her grades and her ability to sleep. One night, Jade tries to steal one of her father’s prescription sleeping pills but he catches her in the act. As a last straw, Hugh demands that David should stop seeing Jade, until the end of the school term. Although it initially causes a scene, Ann gently coaxes David to agree, telling him not to let Hugh “do something he’ll regret”.
Back at school, one of David’s friends, Billy, tells him that when he was 8 years-old, he tried to burn a pile of newspapers, got scared and put the fire out, and his parents thought he was a hero for saving the house from burning. Inspired by this story, David starts a fire on the Butterfields’ front porch and walks away. But by the time he returns, the flame has spread too far. David rushes to warn the family, but he is too late and the entire house is lost.
Following a trial, David is convicted of second-degree arson, sentenced to five years’ probation, sent to a mental hospital for evaluation and forbidden to go anywhere near Jade or her family again. David continues to write to her daily, but the letters aren’t sent because of the no-contact order. His parents pull strings to have him released early, much to Hugh’s chagrin. Meanwhile, David receives his many letters upon his exit; realizing why Jade never wrote back, he decides to pursue her although he knows it violates his parole.
Following the loss of their home, the Butterfields have moved from Chicago to Manhattan where Ann and Hugh file for a divorce. In Manhattan, Ann tries to seduce David but he refuses, leaving her confused. When she isn’t looking, David thumbs through her address book to find out where Jade is and discovers that she now lives in Burlington and attends the University of Vermont. Intent on catching a bus to Vermont, David sees Hugh on the street. Hugh starts chasing him but is hit by a car and killed. Hugh’s new wife Ingrid catches up to the scene just in time to see David escape. David boards the bus to Vermont, but he is overcome with grief and returns to his apartment.
Later, Jade goes to David’s apartment to say goodbye but he pulls Jade back as she tries to leave, throwing her on the bed and forcefully holding her down until Jade admits she loves him. Keith comes home to find the pair together again and falsely informs Jade that David is at fault for their father’s death. Jade refuses to believe it at first but when David confirms that he was actually at the scene, she becomes horrified and hides behind Keith. David tries to explain it was an accident before he shoves Keith out of the way in a desperate bid to grab her. Keith fights him off until the police arrive and arrest David for brawling and disturbing the peace.
David is sentenced to prison and despairs that he’ll never see Jade again. At Hugh’s lakeside funeral, Jade tells Ann that nobody will ever love her like David does, although Ann speaks to her for understanding and approval. While in prison, David watches Jade walk toward him through his barred cell window.