A car screeches to a stop on a deserted country road. Two lovers, a doctor and his nurse, are fighting. The doctor drives off leaving Cory, the nurse, stranded, though accidentally with his suitcase and his clothes. Cory wanders down and road and into the motel. She discovers Jean. It's hard to say who scares the other more. Cory takes more barbituates and drinks and soon collapses on the floor at Jean's feet. Jean, thinking she's dead, carries her out and partially buries her in the mud up to her neck. The next day she revives, crawls out of the pit and drinks and washes from a rain barrel. Jean watches from a distance, first in shock, then in wonderment - his first experience of the nude female form.
Flashbacks to Jean's 14 years living in a mental institution occur intermittently, along with occasional glimpses of his prior childhood years. He is cursed by the recurring voice of his abusive mother playing in his head.
Cory and Jean form a strange, intense relationship. They create a primordial world of exchanged sensation - touch, sound, and smell - in broken-down 20'th century trappings. Picking corn, foraging berries and greens, hunting pheasant and fishing for crayfish, they subsist crudely but well. Without drugs, Cory is forced to overcome her addiction and, for the first time in her life, relate to a man who doesn't abuse her. Jean, in turn, is forced into his first relationship with a woman, though he steadfastly refuses to speak. Initially, neither one dominates the other, and they become close, though not lovers.
But the closer they get, the more it frustrates Cory that Jean won't talk to her or have sex with her. Having been victimized herself by sexual abuse as a child and having suffered numerous bad relationships as an adult, her deepest wish is to hear him speak her name, "to say it for once like it meant something good." She begins to order him about and take advantage of his meekness. The situation grows dire when she demands he service her sexually. He resists and Cory, in a fit of frustration, beats him.
Cory leaves the motel the next day. She takes to the road but can't get picked up hitchhiking. She straggles into a forlorn gas station and tries to call Ellis, her doctor boyfriend. Not only does he refuse to speak to her, but he's fired her from her job. She hangs up the phone in despair.
In shame and self-loathing, Cory returns to the motel and retreats to her room, punishing herself with silence and starvation. Soon, Jean grows concerned. He looks in on her through a large hole in the roof. Feeling spied upon, she becomes enraged. She threatens him with her gun. Then, accidentally, she fires - barely missing him. This fuels a deeper descent into self-hatred and she quickly decides to end her own life. In a clumsy rescue attempt, Jean accidentally falls through the roof, landing on top of her as the gun goes off. Fortunately, neither is hurt. Cory comes to in a fit of uncontrollable pain and begins sobbing. Jean cradles Cory's head in his arms. Tears spill from his cheeks. With love welling up within him, he tries to make the sound of her name: Cory, Cory, Cory... to no avail. But they resurrect their relationship and their intimacy climbs to a new level.
Jean's mother Meredith pulls into the motel lot with her mysterious new companion Reverend Bob Titwell. Jean's recent psychic distress has led her right to him. Her appearance heightens the recurrence of Jean's childhood memories: we see that he was groomed to become a child preacher. Cory tries to protect Jean by putting him in a chair high above the ground constructed from a farmer's broken windmill. Meredith battles with Cory for control of Jean. She beseeches God. Cory calls on the recently discovered pagan forces within. They come to blows. Meredith is knocked unconscious when her head bangs against the brick wall. Knowing her life may depend on it, Cory sutures her head wounds with an old medical kit. Bob seizes the opportunity to free Jean and whisks him away from the motel.
Bob initiates Jean into manhood, small-town America style: a breakneck driving lesson in the country, a swim in the river, and a haircut at the country barber. All the while, Bob freely dispenses his own brand of Will Rogers -Through - the - Looking - Glass commentary. Jean, like a visitor from another planet, soaks it up, and curiously, in this rural setting, he seems to fit in.
At the motel, Meredith and Cory awaken to find that Bob has sealed them in their room. Wound or no, they argue bitterly. Eventually, each makes a certain headway with the other. Cory reveals she's pregnant, and sympathizes with how Meredith was abandoned while she was pregnant with Jean.
Jean has an epiphany at the local supermarket. Standing before the community bulletin board near the exit, tears streaming down his cheeks, Jean reads simple help notices: children seek lost dogs, mothers need babysitters, blind men want help shopping... Jean opens his heart to the infinite expressions of human need; to fill them a neighbor's helping hand seems to be all that is required. One final notice catches his eye: tomorrow there's a local "open mike" speech contest at the VFW hall.
They return to the motel and Bob quickly frees the women by driving the car through the door. Meredith assumes Jean has come back to join her. Jean has a strong reaction to seeing his mother - he fetches the gun and for a moment it looks like he will shoot her. Instead, he goes off into the woods. Fearful for her safety, Bob tries to convince Meredith they should leave, now, without Jean. Later, when they come to say goodbye, an ominous shot is fired in the woods. Was that Jean's suicide? All three sit by the fire in suspense and wonder.
Final Flashback: Small Midwestern country town, 1984, a hot summer day. In the living room, Jean, 12, studiously practices preaching. Meredith irons in the kitchen. She focuses so strongly on her son she forges a psychic link between them, providing missing words for him when his falter. Pressing his best jacket, Meredith discovers a pack of cards of nude women mud wrestlers in his pocket. This is a heart-rending stab of betrayal from her religious prodigy.
Later that night a small revival meeting is held in the same living room. Jean is in full form, down on his knees with a middle-aged woman in his hands, suddenly accusing her of adultery. Meredith confronts him with the cards, tearing them up and forcing them into his mouth to swallow, beating and humiliating him beyond reason. Jean's spirit is crushed, perhaps not for the first time, but somehow, for the last time. His will to speak vanishes and he retreats to a place deep, deep inside.
Jean, naked, covered with dirt, sweat, and blood, returns with the bloodied carcass of a huge doe and dumps it by the fire. Meredith is horrified; she accuses Jean of being cruel and inhuman. He lunges at her and fixes her in a stranglehold. When Bob can't stop him, he tries for the gun but Cory grabs it. He appeals to her. Cory thinks about what to do, then gets Jean to stop before he kills her. But in the fallout she loses some of his trust. Jean wanders back into the forest.
The next day, Jean appears dressed in a suit loaned earlier from Bob, registering for the local speech contest. Waiting for the events to begin, he wanders to a nearby park where some kids play baseball. A fly ball hits him square in the chest, knocking him down. He breaks out into hysterical laughter, his first ever. His fingers stretch in awe to touch the strange new expression on his face.
Bob, Meredith, and joining them, Cory, drive away together from the motel. It's unclear where they are headed.
At the speech contest, Jean's turn to speak comes. On his way to the podium, Cory, Meredith, and Bob enter the back door. Bob has guessed correctly where to find him. Jean seizes the podium and begins a halting but impassioned speech on the importance of speaking truth and the meaning of loss. Initially, the crowd views him as a bizarre comedian, but he makes his serious intentions clear, and eventually they become moved by his searing words. In his speech, Jean releases the final knot between him and his mother, and, lovingly, he speaks Cory's name for the first time. Leaving the crowd spellbound, Jean walks over to Cory. It dawns on her that he is leaving her, pregnant now with his child. To no avail, she tries to convince him to stay. Jean receives the keys to Bob's car and walks out. He gets in the car and drives away. Cory and Meredith feel the sting of his leaving. They do not accept it, but there is a kind of understanding, in each of them of its strange necessity.
Jean drives down the old two-lane road past the broken motel. He starts relaxing and looking out the window, taking in his new surroundings with growing awareness of the huge new life ahead. He spots something particularly interesting ahead and to his left.