Thora Birch stars as Liz Murray, one of two daughters of an extremely dysfunctional Bronx family. As a young girl, Murray lives with her sister, their drug-addicted, schizophrenic mother and their father, also a drug addict who is intelligent, but has AIDS, lacks social skills, and is not conscientious.
She is removed from the home and put into the care system as her father cannot take care of her. At 15 she moves in with her mother, sister and grandfather who sexually abused her mother.
After a run-in with her grandfather, she runs away with a girl from school who is being abused at home. After her mother Jean Murray (1954-1996) dies of AIDS, which she got from sharing needles during her drug abuse, she gets a 'slap in the face' by her mother's death and begins her work to finish high school, which she amazingly completed in two years, rather than the usual four.
She becomes a star student and earns a scholarship to Harvard University through an essay contest sponsored by The New York Times.