Claire Barney (Samantha Morton) is a mild-mannered police parking attendant who lives in a small house with her invalid mother (Teri Garr) who is recovering from a recent stroke. She patrols the L.A. streets and stumbles into an old boyfriend, who introduces Claire to his wife and ill-behaved daughter. Reeling from the chance encounter, she steps out onto the street and is hit by a passing vehicle. Claire is forced to stay at home with a broken right ankle, wrist and a broken left arm and feeling helpless to get around. Her mother, whom gets arround the house in a wheelchair with her right side almost completely inmobile and can only speak with grunts and hummings, implies to Claire to find a man to marry and settle down. A box containing a minature Christmas tree arrives and both are now seemingly happy to decorate the tree and the house with Christmas lights.
Returning to work three weeks later, Claire attracts the attention of another parking attendant, an extremely blunt and aggressive man, named Jay (Jason Patric), whose home life consists mainly of entertaining himself using the services of a webcam porn site and phone service. Claire witnesses him fighting with her best friend Wilma (Illeana Douglas), a neighbor working for a delivery service who parks on the curb to unload her consignment, but does not bring it up with either party. Claire develops a crush on Jay, but every time they settle down for a one-to-one conversation, Jay eventually becomes angry and pushe when he takes issue with some entirely innocuous comment Claire makes and storms off in disgust. Nonetheless, he keeps coming back for more.
One night, Jay comes to Claire and her mother's house for dinner where they have a pleasant and uneventfull evening of dinner and talk. Another night later, Jay shows up with take-out Chinese food for Claire and her mother. Claire's mother seems happy to see her semi-dating again and hopes that Claire will get married and settle down.
A few days later, Claire prepares to join Jay at the meter squad's office Christmas Eve party, as her mother prepares mashed potatos at the kitchen table for Christmas dinner. When Claire has finished dressing and goes to the kitchen to ask her mother's opinion of her outfit, she finds her mother slumped over... dead... with her face half-buried in the bowl of mashed potatos.
In a state of shock, Claire simply picks up her coat and leaves for the party... leaving her dead mother behind whom she always saw as a burden. At the party, Claire sits alone at the edge of the room, watching Jay dance with another woman and refusing all interaction with anyone. Finally, Jay comes over and asks her in brutal terms what is the matter with her and why she is very distant. She takes him home to show him the problem; her mother's dead body laying slimped over the kitchen table where she left her. Claire decides that rather than call an ambulance she'd rather have the situation dealt with by family, and calls her mother's vain and self-obsessed sister Tilda (also Terri Garr in a dual role), who lives in a different part of the city. When Claire tells Aunt Tilda about her mother's death, the aunt tells Claire it is too far to drive over there at that hour of the night, but if she wants, Claire can come over to her place to pick up a necklace her mother once left there.
After Claire finally calls an undertaker to take her mother's body away, Jay insists on staying the night to "take care" of Claire, promising to sleep on the couch. In the next scene, he is lying in Claire's narrow bed with her, and starts to remove her clothes and begins to have sex with her. After a few seconds of brutal thrusting, during which he talks to her as if she were the phone sex service he uses so frequently, he rolls over and falls asleep. Claire is beside herself.
From that point on, Jay and Claire maintain a tenuous sort of relationship, hung mainly on Claire's optimism for a future with somone, and Jay's desire for sex and attention.
A few days later at work, Jay is suspended for his aggressive behavior with parking offenders, which has earned him an impressive complaints record (after he beats up a few too many motorists who insult him for giving them a parking ticket).
Later that evening, watching a crafts documentary on carpentry on TV, Jay decides to make a 'love seat'. On his first day of suspension, he turns up at Claire's house and offers to drive her out to her aunt's house to pick up her mother's necklace, lying to her over his disciplining at work. He drives her to the other side of the city in Pasadena, with her seated on the makeshift love seat in his small parking attendant's vehicle. At Aunt Tilda's house, she insists that they all go out drinking.
Afterwords, Jay and Claire end up in a hotel room. Jay gives Claire a tiny, pink PVC bikini and tells her she should lose weight, which Claire takes in stride, as she has previously with his other insinuations and outright insults.
During her next shift, Claire is informed that she is being promoted for her exemplary behavior towards parking violators. To celebrate she goes to Jay's apartment with take-out for lunch, and swiftly realizes that he was visited by a prostitute immediately before her arrival. She leaves in disgust.
A few days later, Jay tries to win Claire back by going over to her house to apologize. Dressed in a more fashionable and confident style, she is outspokenly skeptical about his now friendly behavior, but submits when he pulls her to the floor for another round of uncomfortable sex. When it is over, Jay expresses that he has burgeoning feelings of commitment to Claire, but she asks him to leave saying that their romance is over.
In the final scene, Claire once again walks her beat alone. Another vehicle nearly catches her at the site of her prior accident, but this time she escapes unscathed, and smiles in relief.