Elmor Pratt is a former prize-fighter, and Amy Post is a prostitute. They meet in Mobile and wind up on the road to California after he punches out a cop who was trying to arrest her.

Stendhal, the French novelist and critic, once wrote that love is born out of admiration and hope but takes firmer shape "in a process of the mind which discovers fresh perceptions in its beloved at every turn of events." Back Roads portrays such a process in the lives of two seeming losers.

Their early experiences hitchhiking are all downers — a kid from a pious middle-class family steals Amy's wallet containing $200, and a gun-toting waitress chases the twosome after they flee from a restaurant without paying the bill. A kindly sailor picks them up and even takes Amy to a carnival. However, his crush on her vanishes when he learns she is a hooker.

Amy and Elmor draw closer together as a result of their troubles. She tells him about giving up her son to adoption, and he shares memories of his brief marriage. Then they talk about the future. Elmore scorns her intention to become a manicurist in California. "You don't change," he tells her. "I am just what I am and so are you." Amy then states her disgust for his aimlessness and violence (he has just rolled a man to obtain their bus fare).

The two angrily separate in a Texas border town. But trouble, this time in the form of a Mexican madam and her strong-armed accomplice who beat them up for trying to work the streets as independents — brings them back to each other. Their tribulations make this couple stronger and, in the end, they forge a vision of hope out of their love for each other.

Martin Ritt's direction of Gary DeVore's screenplay gives equal weight to the story's action filled incidents and the developing relationship between the two protagonists. Sally Field is spunky, sexy, and endearing as Amy; and Tommy Lee Jones is impulsive, intense, and likable as Elmore. Thanks to their lively and engaging performances, the viewer is treated to a love story with real clout.