Twenty-four-year-old Antwone Fisher, stationed at the Naval base in Coronado, California, often loses his temper and fights with his fellow seamen. After his latest brawl, the African-American Antwone defends himself by stating that his opponent made a racial slur, but is still sentenced to reduced pay and a demotion, and is also ordered to be evaluated at the Naval psychiatric facility. Antwone reluctantly sees psychiatrist Commander Jerome Davenport, who is bemused by the dichotomy between Antwone’s belligerence and shyness. Intrigued by Antwone’s statement that he is “from under a rock,” Davenport orders him to return the following week. Taking advantage of his liberty from the ship, Antwone goes to the base exchange to see Cheryl Smolley, a fellow Naval recruit with whom he is smitten. Despite her own shyness, Cheryl attempts to tease Antwone into a conversation, but the tongue-tied young man leaves quickly. Two weeks later, Davenport has Antwone forcibly brought to his office, as he had not reported for their meeting. Davenport explains to the angry seaman that he has only three sessions in which to evaluate him and make a recommendation to his commanding officer, who wants Antwone dismissed from the Navy. Declaring that there is nothing wrong with him, Antwone refuses to talk, and so Davenport orders him to attend weekly sessions until he does. For several weeks, Antwone sits in silence while Davenport catches up on his paperwork. Finally, Antwone begins to speak, soon revealing that he never knew his father, who was murdered two months before he was born. His mother was in prison when he was born, and Antwone was put in an orphanage for two years. Eventually, Antwone was placed in the Cleveland foster home of Reverend and Mrs. Tate, an older African-American couple who also fostered young Dwight and Keith, who was favored because he was half white. Antwone describes the incessant physical and emotional abuse heaped upon the children by Mrs. Tate, who called them “nigger” so often that they could tell which child she was calling by how she said the word. Antwone cannot control the pain in his voice upon describing how Mrs. Tate bragged about beating him unconscious when he was eight years old, and Davenport begins to sympathize with his patient. During their next session, Antwone tells Davenport about his best friend Jesse, a devil-may-care boy whom Mrs. Tate detested. One day, when Jesse came to call for Antwone, Mrs. Tate began to berate Antwone, but the by then teenaged boy, unable to endure her tyranny, grabbed the shoe with which she was beating him, and she threw him out. Hoping to help Antwone understand the Tates’s ambiguous feelings about their own race, Davenport gives him a book about slavery, explaining how generations of African-American slaves passed on to their children the poor treatment they had received from their masters. Despite his initial skepticism, Antwone finds himself responding to Davenport’s gentle questioning and so is distraught at the end of their third session, when Davenport states that he can no longer see him, although he will recommend that Antwone be allowed to remain in the Navy. Overwhelmed by the release of feelings he had kept locked inside, Antwone begins fighting again, and one day, shows up at Davenport’s office, where he yells at the waiting patients. Drawn to helping Antwone, Davenport offers to see him on his own time, and they begin their sessions again. Antwone is amazed one afternoon when Cheryl asks him out, and after receiving encouragement from Davenport, has a successful first date with her. Thrilled that Cheryl kissed him, Antwone dashes to Davenport’s house to tell him, and the commander’s wife Berta, with whom Davenport has a strained relationship, caustically tells her husband not to cure the young man of his enthusiasm. All goes well for Antwone until his ship makes a routine tour of Mexico, where one night, he and his buddies visit a nightclub. There, Antwone’s frequent tormentor, Grayson, taunts him for not wanting to dance, implying that he is either a virgin or a homosexual. After the ensuing brawl, Antwone is returned to Coronado, where Davenport questions him in the brig. Antwone confides that he is a virgin, then reveals that as a young child, he was repeatedly sexually molested by Nadine, a predatory older girl also staying with the Tates. Later, Antwone stops by the Davenport home to see the commander and charms Berta with his honesty and politeness. Berta insists that Antwone attend their Thanksgiving dinner, at which Antwone experiences his first family holiday. In gratitude Antwone gives Davenport a moving poem, “Who Will Cry for the Little Boy?”, and a deeply touched Berta realizes how much Antwone means to her husband. Soon after, however, Davenport is forced to tell Antwone that it is time for him to move on, as he must now take charge of his recovery himself. An infuriated Antwone lashes out, yelling that everyone in his life has abandoned him, even Jesse, and reveals to Davenport that rather than simply losing touch with Jesse, as he had said earlier, he was an innocent bystander when Jesse was shot while robbing a convenience store. After finally being able to admit his anger toward Jesse, Antwone realizes that Davenport is also right about his need to find his real family. Asking Cheryl to accompany him, Antwone returns to Cleveland, but receives little help from social services. Cheryl then encourages Antwone to question Mrs. Tate. Antwone goes to the Tate home, where he castigates Nadine and Mrs. Tate for their abuse, then defiantly declares that he is still standing strong. After Mrs. Tate tells Antwone that his father’s name was Edward Elkins, Antwone and Cheryl begin calling all the Elkinses in the Cleveland phone book. Late that night, a confused Annette Elkins receives a call from Antwone, and after he relates his story, tearfully tells him that she may be his "auntie." The next morning, Antwone and Cheryl go to Annette’s home, and there meet her, his uncle James and another uncle, none of whom knew of his existence. James realizes that Antwone’s mother is Eva Mae Fisher, the sister of a friend, and takes him to meet her. Antwone is dismayed by his mother’s tenement home, while she is too overwhelmed by his sudden appearance to speak. Antwone tells her that he is a good man, of many accomplishments, and after kissing her on the cheek, leaves with forgiveness in his heart. Upon his arrival back at the Elkins home, Antwone is stunned to be proudly welcomed by his many relatives, who have prepared a feast for him. When he returns to Coronado, Antwone cheerfully informs Davenport that he is not a virgin any longer, and tells him that he was right about seeking out his family. In turn, Davenport relates that when he and his wife discovered they could not have children, he obtained the best psychiatric help for Berta, but he shut down emotionally. It was not until Antwone entered his life that Davenport came alive again, and the commander thanks Antwone, his surrogate son, for helping him become a better doctor and husband.