Naïve, seventeen year old CLEO PORTER lives in a small town in Mississippi in 2004. She attends a private Baptist high school and is a member of a mega-church, even though she’s not entirely sure she believes what’s being preached. She takes a Polaroid camera with her everywhere she goes. Cleo’s mother FAYNE is emotionally abusive toward her daughter, and even slaps her once in the heat of an argument. Cleo can never seem to please Fayne, a point that shapes Cleo’s personality. At the beginning of Cleo’s senior year, a new student transfers to Oak Grove Christian, BEBE BLATTNER. Bebe is everything Cleo is not; after a wild party at Bebe’s house where security officers show up dressed like the police and Cleo throws up on the wallpaper in Bebe’s bathroom, the two become inseparable. When a vicious rumor is purposely spread across campus by Cleo’s ex-friend ABBY that Bebe is pregnant, Cleo is forced to take a stand and defend her friend against mean girls and the double standards for the behavior of guys and girls. When Cleo leaves campus during lunch after the hypocritical stand-off amongst the students regarding the lies about Bebe, she learns that Bebe has recurrent breast cancer. She is shocked that her best friend had not told her yet and wants to be involved. Bebe reminds Cleo that she has fought before and will continue to fight, but hit with the hard punch that her friend could die, Cleo finds herself questioning the things she’s been taught to believe in church about life, death, and faith.
After Bebe is ostracized for the popular crowd at school, the girls spend precious time together. The knowledge that Bebe’s days could be numbered hangs between them. In March of their senior year, the senior class goes on an annual school trip to the beach in Florida. There, Bebe researches a local college and she pitches the idea to Cleo of moving away from home to attend college in Florida. They both want to get out of Mississippi and Cleo has got to get out of her mother’s controlling grasp and so, a plan is born. The last night of their trip, a third of the class, including Bebe and Cleo, sneaks out to a secret bonfire on the beach where the students break the chaperones’ rules about curfew, alcohol, and sex. Everyone thinks they got away with it, but a snitch was watching and writing a list of perpetrators. Back at school, the list of names is turned in to the principal and Cleo is accused of being the writer. At the basketball homecoming game, the Student Government Association works to publicly expose the List-Maker as the backstabber she is. Nearly everyone who’s name was on the list is suspended, losing college scholarships and their parents’ trust.
At the final event before graduation, the senior banquet, Bebe sets Cleo up on a blind date who turns out to be a short troll who gets a little too handsy with Cleo. When he corners her at the after-party, Bebe intervenes and rescues Cleo and the two leave their dates behind, preferring the company of one another. After graduation, the girls spend the first part of their summer quietly, dreaming and planning for their future in Florida. On the fourth of July, Bebe shows up at Cleo’s house on a motorcycle she just purchased with her overly-permissive parents’ approval. Cleo is angry about Bebe’s choices and the girls argue before Bebe rides off, leaving Cleo fuming at her house.
Just a few short days later, Cleo is awoken by her mother to terrible news – Bebe has been in an accident and even though she was taken to the hospital, she did not make it. Cleo is awash with disbelief, anger, and pain. She travels to Alabama where Bebe’s family chose to lay her to rest and finds herself struggling with how easily everyone else seems to be moving on without Bebe.
In August, Cleo decides that she is going to go forward with the plans she and Bebe laid out together. She packs her car, says goodbye to her parents and her family home, and heads south to Tampa, Florida where she enrolls in the Studio Art program at the University of South Florida. Over the course of the next year, Cleo leans into photography, channeling her grief by learning the ins and outs of getting ‘the shot’. She also takes anthropology classes where she is introduced to real scientific explanations about life and culture that do not come from the Bible for the first time in her life. While she struggles with her waning belief in the Christian God and the Heaven everyone has promised her Bebe is in, Cleo allows her heart to process her feelings about her best friend’s untimely death. Through the juxtaposition of faith versus science, Cleo lets go of her grief, finding that she can and will survive. She is selected as an emerging freshman to participate in an on-campus art showcase. She works like mad to put together her contribution to the showcase, a series of sailboats that tells her story of survival after traumatic loss. She makes meaning through her art, coming to accept Bebe’s loss and learning to welcome her best friend’s spirit in the golden spaces of life.