Frances Austen (Dennis) is a thirtysomething woman who lives alone in the huge Vancouver apartment she inherited from her late parents. One day during a dinner party she spies a 19-year-old boy (Burns) sitting alone in the rain on a bench in the park next to her apartment building. Feeling sorry for him, she invites him inside to dry off. He doesn't speak, but she appreciates his company and invites him to spend the night in her guest room. When he awakes the next morning, he discovers that she's locked him in the room.
The Boy still accepts her hospitality but finds her behavior odd. Finally he manages to pry open a window and leave via the building's fire escape. We learn that he's not mute at all; he's a middle class kid who splits time between his family's suburban home and a squalid houseboat where his hippie sister Nina (Benton) lives with her American boyfriend.
Unhappy with that situation, the Boy returns to Frances and her apartment, only to find that her concern for him is starting to take a disturbing detour.
Filmed a few months before M*A*S*H, this is basically Altman's first "Altman" film, where he got to use some of his favorite techniques (improvised dialogue, atmosphere becoming more important than story, panning and zooming, complex female characters) for the first time.
This film has examples of the following tropes:
- Abhorrent Admirer:
Frances: I don't find him attractive...he smells like an old man.
- Dr. Stevenson, an old friend of her parents who Frances socializes with, propositions her, but she turns him down.
- Frances is this to The Boy as well.
- Arc Words: "I want you to make love to me."
- Disposable Sex Worker: Sylvia
- Downer Ending: Frances has just committed a brutal murder, descended into psychosis, and has trapped The Boy in her apartment. Whatever she has planned for The Boy, things will not end well for him.
- Draft Dodging: Nina's boyfriend Nick is an American who moved to Vancouver to avoid the draft, though you only learn this from a couple snarky remarks The Boy makes about him (calling him "the war hero" and telling him "my country's not at war").
- Emotionless Girl: Frances, for the most part.
- Female Gaze: One online critic has argued that the depiction of the Boy falls under this trope. Not only does Frances objectify him, but by never revealing his name the film does it as well. It was directed by a man, but was written by a woman (Gillian Freeman).
- Idle Rich: Frances doesn't seem to have a job and apparently inherited a good chunk of money from her parents.
- Incest Subtext: The Boy and Nina have a relationship overflowing with this.
- Intoxication Ensues: The Boy gives Frances some cookies his sister made, but she doesn't know they have marijuana in them. It loosens her up a bit.
- Mask of Sanity Frances just seems repressed and awkward for most of the movie, but turns psychotic at the end.
- Mistaken for Gay: When she goes to procure a prostitute for The Boy, everyone assumes Frances is a lesbian (her explanations that it's "for a friend" only increase the suspicion).
- No Name Given:
- Old Maid: Frances.
- Red Light District: Frances ventures into one to find a prostitute for The Boy.
- Spiritual Successor: This film, Images and 3 Women form a "character study of disturbed women" trilogy in the Altman filmography.
- Trojan Gauntlet: Frances goes to a birth control clinic in anticipation of seducing The Boy. She's profusely uncomfortable, in part because of the frank talk about sex from the other women in the waiting room. When she's asked why she wants birth control, Frances lies and says she's about to get married.
- The Voiceless: The Boy though he finally breaks his silence with Frances.
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: Frances has a peculiar Mid-Atlantic accent that seems out of place for western Canada, except there are some hints that her parents were English (her parents' old friends who attend the dinner party are mostly English). Still, she's played by Nebraska native Sandy Dennis (she did have a reputation for throwing weird little quirks into her acting, though).