The film opens with a scene of a burial in a large suburban cemetery, with mourners, many of them young people, surrounding a casket while a eulogist talks. An older couple dressed in black is closest to the casket, suggesting that they are the deceased's parents. The grief-stricken father weeps openly as he is comforted by his wife.
The story then cuts from the cemetery and to a car swerving erratically on a street, focusing on a young man, 17-year-old Richie Werner (Robby Benson), who is doing drugs in the car with his three friends. The driver, Brick, is then pulled over for his erratic driving. The police officer tells Brick he is willing to let him off the hook as a favor...and that he expects favors in return for those he does favors for. Brick agrees.
This is the beginning of a series of episodes that bring Richie into conflict with his father, George (Ben Gazzara), a stern man who loves his son, but has trouble expressing his feelings. Eileen Brennan plays Richie's loving but ineffectual mother Carol, and Lance Kerwin plays his younger brother Russell, whom Richie, despite his demons, is very protective of.
Both men make genuine attempts to meet each other halfway, yielding some success, with Richie getting a job (but loses it later after Brick and his thugs show up at Richie's job) and George helping his son get closer to Shiela (Cynthia Eilbacher), a girl from school that Richie likes. However, the relationship between George and Richie worsens as social pressures and personal failings drive Richie deeper into his drug addiction.
The interaction between father and son continues to deteriorate, largely due to Richie's escalating drug abuse and his father's unwillingness to enter family counseling.
The movie's climax comes when George intervenes by informing the police of his son's activities, in a desperate attempt to save his life at all costs. Richie confronts his father in a drug-induced rage (from ingestion of what is referred to as "reds", usually slang for barbiturates ), threatening him with an awl. George retreats to the basement in the family's home, where Richie follows him. George retrieves a revolver from his toolbox and aims it at Richie, but does not fire it, cocking the hammer back in an attempt to convince his son that he is not bluffing. Richie screams repeatedly for his father to shoot him. George manages to overpower Richie by knocking the awl from his hand, but Richie retreats upstairs and returns to the basement with a pair of scissors and taunts his father over and over again, daring him to shoot him, approaching him closer, thinking that George doesn't have the nerve to do it.
With a steady hand, George pulls the trigger. A blinding flash from the gun's barrel then morphs into a bouquet of flowers on a mahogany casket in the same cemetery, surrounded by the same mourners in black. Following Psalm 23, a brief eulogy is read by Shiela:
The movie ends with a brief written epilogue over a still shot of George placing a rose on Richie's casket, stating that a grand jury voted unanimously not to indict George Werner for the shooting death of his son, and that he lives as a free man.Though the shooting scene was kept short in order to meet the more restrictive censorship limits of NBC at the time, a brief scream is heard from Richie after the gunshot. This would be edited out in future airings of the movie. The aural intensity of the gunshot was also toned down subsequent re-runs.The alternative title of the movie is Richie, the title of the book by Thomas Thompson on which the movie is based.The family's real surname is Diener. In the movie, it is Werner.George Diener, the real life father, died of cancer in April 1981 at the age of 52.Carol Diener, Richie's mother, died in November 2001.