Mary Ann Taylor (Kathleen Quinlan) works as a waitress in her father's diner in a small southwestern town. An accomplished photographer, she has applied for a scholarship to a Los Angeles art school. Spunky and eccentric, Mary Ann is ready for changes in her life.

Jack Parker (David Keith) has just returned home after dropping out of engineering school. His father thinks he's a failure, but Jack stands pretty tall in Mary Ann's eyes — she throws herself at him with coltish optimism. The shy young man then introduces her to his chief love — cars. He works at a gas station and races a high performance Camero in his spare time.

The romance that develops between these two is depleted by circumstances beyond their control. Jack's sister Nancy (Dianne Wiest) is a battered wife who attempts suicide as a way out of her hellish life. Mary Ann's bedridden mother Carla (Frances Sternhagen) is slowly dying of cancer. Jack is determined to save his sister from her brutal husband (Cliff De Young), and Mary Ann wants to spend as much time as possible with her mother before the end.

Independence Day switches gears repeatedly. Alice Hoffman's screenplay aims to depict the high cost of personal autonomy, especially for women. Nancy is trapped in a nightmare and, although she wants to flee, she lacks the necessary will power. Carla over the years has put aside $1800 "escape money" but has never used it. When Mary Ann wins the scholarship to the art school, Carla gives her the money and a blessing. Jack must then decide whether he wants to start a new life in Los Angeles with his independent woman.

Kathleen Quinlan, who has made a habit of starring in romantic melodramas, lends vim and vigor to Independence Day. David Keith (last seen in An Officer and a Gentlemen) is just right as the reserved and quietly intense Jack. In the end, he bets that Mary Ann's dream is big enough to hold him. And it is.