High school junior James Whitman reads poetry, hugs trees and practices self-encouragement to distract himself from his feelings of depression. He misses his older sister, Jorie, who was kicked out of the house by their parents. James is in love with his classmate Beth. While trying to impress her one morning, he runs into the street and gets hit by a bus. The impact breaks his arm, but Beth doesn’t see the incident, further emphasizing the futility of James’ existence.
James is shocked and thrilled when Beth approaches him at school. Before she was expelled, his older sister, Jorie, wrote for the school’s literary paper. As one of the editors, Beth asks James to find an illustrated story that Jorie was working on before she left. James visits Jorie’s old room but finds nothing.
For the past year, James has been imagining a therapist for himself and having conversations with her. Instead of a person, he envisions a human-sized pigeon named Dr. Bird. In his fantasies, James tells Dr. Bird about his life and his thoughts. She responds with sympathy and honesty. He never mentions to Dr. Bird that he sometimes wants to kill himself, but he senses that she knows.
James has only one friend, a senior named Derek. Derek recruits him to be his assistant on a condom-buying mission. James is supposed to distract the pharmacy assistant so Derek doesn’t receive any extra attention while selecting the type of condoms he wants. Derek is a high school senior, but he has been having a sexual relationship with a 21-year-old woman who is engaged to someone else.
Derek says the woman, Sally, will be at a party thrown by a popular guy from their school. He invites James to it. The party invitation ignites James’ social anxiety, but when he hears Beth plans to attend, he decides to go as well.
At the party, Derek introduces Sally to James. James is also elated to see Jorie at the party. He learns that Sally is Jorie’s manager at Fillmore’s, the restaurant where she works. After having been expelled from school and kicked out of her home, Jorie is living alone and working constantly to make ends meet. Worried about his sister’s welfare, James visits his school’s vice principal the next day to see if there is any way Jorie could still graduate.
The vice principal reminds James that Jorie was expelled for slamming her friend Gina’s head against a locker so hard that Gina had to be sent to the hospital. He also says that the day before the incident, Jorie threw a laptop at her teacher. James realizes that he didn’t understand the depth of his sister’s problems and thinking about her issues brings on a panic attack.
James goes to see Mrs. Yao, the teacher Jorie allegedly threw a laptop at. Mrs. Yao says Jorie didn’t throw a laptop but that she was failing history class. She also reveals that Jorie had serious self-harming behaviors, such as cutting her own arm. At home, James looks through Jorie’s bedroom and finds a box full of razorblades and a story about a girl who cuts herself. As the days pass, James spirals into further depression, but his parents downplay his request for therapy and tell him that he’s being dramatic.
James gets a job at a pizza place to pay for his own therapy. Beth comes by with her friends, who giggle and act awkward around James, which confuses him. James meets with Jorie at Fillmore’s because he misses her, and then he visits her new apartment and goes to a party with her. When he realizes she’s living in a rundown place with no food in her refrigerator and hanging out with people who frequently do drugs, he worries more about her.
At school, James joins the school’s literary magazine. Lately, he’s been enjoying photography and has an idea to publish his photos with accompanying poems. Beth champions his idea to the other staff members and confesses to James that her friends think she likes him because of the way she talks about him, which has made her boyfriend angry with her. James is elated at Beth’s roundabout expression of interest and excited that her boyfriend might consider him a threat.
James meets a real therapist, Dr. Dora, for the first time. She asks him to stop his nervous habit of laughing when he discusses something that worries or disturbs him. James admits to his anxiety attacks and suicidal thoughts and cries about his inability to protect his sister from their parents’ anger and physical abuse. The therapy session seems helpful and James gains the confidence to call Beth for the first time and tell her he’s been having panic attacks. As he works with Beth to get the online version of the school literary magazine up and running, he feels happy and motivated.
Beth agrees to meet James at Fillmore’s for a date, and James wants to use the date as an opportunity to check on Jorie. He will also check on Sally for Derek, who believes she’s seeing an additional guy besides him. When James arrives, he hears that Jorie no longer works at Fillmore’s. And after amazing conversation at dinner, Beth says that although she likes James, their meeting isn’t a date because she has a boyfriend.
When Beth leaves, James feels helpless and angry. He sees Sally in Fillmore’s and directly asks her why she’s cheating on Derek. In front of the whole restaurant, he yells at her for having a fiancé and a high school age boyfriend at the same time and uses harsh language to berate her for her promiscuity.
James wanders to Jorie’s apartment. He asks her about the day she attacked Gina. She says she did it because Gina looked so happy, while Jorie was angry at the world. James spends the night at his sister’s apartment. When he returns home the next day, his father punches him for breaking curfew. He sinks into deeper despair, doesn’t eat for a few days and begins reimagining suicide options. He worries that in order to truly improve he will have to work for several days to afford more therapy. Then he’ll have to wait and pay more money for depression drugs, and then wait while the drugs take effect. In the meantime, he thinks he might kill himself. Desperate for money, he steals from the cash register at the pizzeria and goes to see Dr. Dora again.
Derek speaks to James at lunchtime and says he’s broken off his relationship with Sally. When Derek asks if James robbed the cash register, James admits to stealing and finally tells Derek that he has suicidal thoughts and needs money for therapy. Derek tells James to give the money back because he will loan him enough cash to pay for therapy.
Later, Derek calls James to come help him because Sally is outside his house, screaming and throwing dirt at the windows. Derek’s mother isn’t at home but he’s afraid the police will come investigate the disturbance. James arrives to find Sally banging on the doors of Derek’s house, ranting and raving in much the same way that James railed at her at Fillmore’s. James apologizes to Sally for the ugly words he said to her, and he persuades her to leave Derek alone in the future.
James goes to see Miss Tebler, the school counselor, to get answers about the conflicting stories regarding Jorie’s actions before her expulsion. He finds out that Jorie overheard Gina arguing with other students regarding some marijuana that Gina sold them. James believes that Jorie tried to report Gina for drug dealing but was ignored because the principal didn’t want to believe anything bad was happening in his school. James confronts the principal and receives in-school suspension.
Jorie finally admits to James that she beat Gina up not because of any secret conspiracy but because Gina told all her friends that Jorie cut herself regularly. After the fight, Jorie asked the principal to expel her. She tells James that she likes living away from home, and that even though her life is precarious, she prefers the peace of living alone to the anger and turmoil of her parents’ home.
At home, James calmly tells his parents that he needs them to help him pay for his therapy. They argue that he doesn’t have anything to be depressed about. He agrees that he has an objectively OK life but that his brain and body chemistry are off kilter, necessitating therapy.
James’ life improves. He gets the therapy he needs, talks with Jorie more regularly and enjoys his friendship with Beth, and the possibility of more. He finally feels content with his present life and is able to look toward the future with more hope.