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One night, six-year-old Jimmy Graham wakes to find his mother dying of a knife wound inflicted by his father Harry. Due in part to Jimmy's testimony, Harry is subsequently sentenced to fourteen years in prison for the murder, while Jimmy is sent to a series of reformatory institutions and foster homes where he is emotionally neglected. Years later, Jimmy, now nineteen years old and living in Pittsburgh, decides to visit Harry after having had no contact with him during the intervening years. However, when he reaches the prison with grand expectations of their first meeting, Jimmy finds that Harry was released months ago. Vengeful about his mother's death, Jimmy travels to Wildwood, New Jersey to find his father, who is now working as a mechanic and living in a trailer court. While secretly watching Harry for several days, Jimmy reminisces about a beach picnic he and his parents took when he was a young boy. When Jimmy cried over the ugliness of battle scars on his father's leg, Harry, a well-respected war hero, gently comforted and joked with his son until Jimmy's fear was eased. In the present, Jimmy finally introduces himself to Harry outside the trailer one night, but his father is so shocked that he slams the door on him. However, Harry's girl friend Jenny, who lives in a Winnebago nearby, encourages Harry to greet his son. Although congenial Jenny tries to ease the tension by fixing dinner for them and trying to make conversation, the two men remain nervously silent. Conflicted, Jimmy soon leaves, then files a police report against Harry, insisting that his father's release is unjustified, but the presiding officer tells him Harry has completed his sentence and advises Jimmy to move on with his life. Jimmy returns to Harry, who offers him a place to stay and a job working alongside him as a mechanic. On the job, Harry tries to tell him stories about their shared past, but a sullen Jimmy childishly reacts by writing "beware of Harry Graham, who killed his wife" on the wall of a gas station bathroom on which they are working. Although Jimmy fantasizes that Harry will beat him with a crow bar when he sees the message, Harry remains silent after using the restroom later. Days later, Jimmy watches in a courtroom as Harry's parole officer, Bonelli, who has access to his bank statements, reprimands him for not saving money and beginning a sexual relationship with Jenny. After Jimmy leaves, Bonelli warns Harry to keep the visit with his estranged son short. When an indignant Jimmy asks his father why he takes Bonelli's abuse, Harry tells him that he acquiesces because he does not want his parole to be revoked. Later, Jimmy, assuming that Harry will come to Jenny's rescue, reports to Harry that drunken sailors are harassing Jenny at the penny arcade where she works. Harry is unconcerned, prompting Jimmy to take matters in his own hands and hit one of the sailors. Soon a brawl ensues, forcing the rugged Harry to take action to save his son. After the sailors flee, a detached Harry casually looks at Jimmy's wounds and walks away. Humiliated, Jimmy decides to leave Wildwood, but then loses his nerve and returns to Harry and Jenny. The couple, who are attempting to buy a house together, offer to give him a room after the purchase is completed. When the idea prompts only apathetic reluctance in the young man, Harry chastises his son for having no aspirations and only thinking of "broads." Later, Harry and Jenny arrange for Jimmy to take their friend Betsy out on a date, with Harry and Jenny acting as casual chaperones. After seeing Jimmy easily befriend Betsy with his seductive moves on the dance floor, Harry and Jenny leave Jimmy the Winnebago keys so that the young couple can be alone. Although Betsy is eager to have sex, the inexperienced Jimmy nervously refuses. Days later, while shopping at a nursery with Jenny to buy plants for their new home, Jimmy pessimistically remarks that the parole board will never approve Harry and Jenny's marriage or the house purchase and thus Jenny has no reason to buy plants to decorate it. Realizing Jimmy's resentment remains impossible to resolve, Jenny tells him that he and his father can never normalize their relationship and suggests Jimmy leave. Angered, Jimmy storms up into an attic in the nursery where dozens of fighting cocks are caged. When Jenny follows him, Jimmy, sensing her fear of birds, rapes Jenny there. Later that day, an excited Harry returns home to tell Jenny that the parole board has approved their marriage, but finds his emotionally and physically bruised fiancée unresponsive. When she locks herself in the trailer bathroom, Harry, assuming Jenny is having second thoughts about his past, admits that he killed Jimmy's mother and that he was wrong. Hearing his desperation, Jenny manically recites items needed for the reception to let him know she accepts the proposal. Meanwhile, Jimmy, still desperately believing that the past can be made right, returns to the house where the murder took place. Now a pizza parlor, Jimmy is refused entrance to the restaurant because a private bachelor party is in progress. After envisioning the image of his mother comforting him while they were living in the house, Jimmy calls Harry to tell him his location and apologize for "screwing up." Hanging up the phone, Jimmy goes to the basement where he violently rips open cabinets hoping to find his mother's belongings that he remembers being stored there, but discovers only restaurant supplies. Soon after, Harry arrives and listens as Jimmy wonders out loud if Jenny told Harry what he had done to her. Finally realizing that Jimmy raped Jenny, Harry gets Jimmy in a choke hold, but then releases him. As Harry gets in his car to leave, Jimmy asks why Harry killed his mother. Harry replies that he was drunk and did not mean to kill her, then offers to let Jimmy return home with him. After Jimmy makes a sarcastic remark and absent-mindedly asks what will happen in the future, Harry replies, "You get to be 20," and leaves without him.