Hal Hefner, a smart New Jersey high schooler with a debilitating stutter, sits in history class, answering every question his teacher asks — but only in his head (INSIDE OUT). After class, Hal and his best and only friend, Heston, attend a mandatory assembly to watch the school’s vaunted speech and debate team face their arch forensics nemesis: Townsend Preparatory School. Mrs. Lumbly gives a fawning introduction to her two star debaters, Ben Wekselbaum and Jenny Ryerson (PERFECT TOGETHER), and the competition begins. As they exchange opening barbs, the rivals agree on one thing: the power of words as a weapon (ODE TO TOWNSEND PREP/WORDS). The school watches in horror as Ben loses his words mid-argument in an inexplicable verbal meltdown.
Back at home that evening, Hal’s parents have a fiery argument after agreeing to a trial separation. Hal’s father sits down with his son to assure him that everything will work out just fine but he can’t quite remember how all the comforting old sayings are supposed to go (IT GETS EASIER).
The next day at speech pathology class, Mr. Lewinsky, a woefully inept speech
therapist, is overwhelmed by the prospect of helping Hal to improve his stuttering. He advises Hal and the rest of the class to readjust their expectations for life (DREAM SMALL), and introduces a special guest: Jenny Ryerson, from the school’s Young Motivators Club. Jenny stuns Hal by saying she sees untapped potential in him, and demands he join the debate team as her new partner (I FOUND YOU).
That evening, Hal’s mother remembers a nice thing her husband once did for her when they were new (CHINA TO COME). Later, Jenny stuns Hal by telling him his first debate is only a month away (POLICY/OH MY GOD OCTOBER), and they do prep-work in her bedroom as Ben, now a high-school dropout, provides a dreary dispatch from Trenton, New Jersey, where he’s now works as a dry-cleaner (TRENTON WALTZ).
Jenny kisses Hal during a study session, and Hal can hardly believe the sequence of events that’s just taken place (ONLY JENNY). Soon after, when Hal hits the stage for his first scheduled debate, Jenny is a no-show. He learns that she’s made a surprise transfer to Townsend Prep, leaving the team — and Hal — as part of a calculated setup to weaken what’s now her prime opposition. Nonetheless, Hal is in the competition to win and tells anybody who will listen: nothing’s going to stop him (THIS IS HAPPENING).
In a desperation move, Hal travels to a Trenton laundromat to seek help from the mystical Ben Wekselbaum. Ben’s not interested he says, and is content working with laundry for the rest of his life (DRY CLEAN ONLY). Meanwhile at Hal’s school, Honoria, a deadpan-sarcastic classmate of Hal’s who despises the cliches of high school romance, privately concedes that she’s head over heels for Hal in spite of herself (HONORIA’S THEME}.
Back in Trenton, Hal has convinced Ben to give him a crash course in debate technique ahead of the upcoming state championship — and they try out an idea shown to hold some promise with stutterers: Hal’s not going to talk the words, he’s going to sing them. When Hal nails a perfect citation of scientific research, they know they’re on to something (ACCORDING TO KLEIN).
At home, Hal’s parents reminisce about a romantic trip to they shared earlier in their marriage — the last time they remember being good (WILLIAMSBURG), and Hal’s friend Heston, fending for himself with Hal now in Trenton, learns just how important having a buddy can be in battling through a day of high school (ONE FRIEND).
On stage alone before the big debate, Jenny thrills in the moments before victory and rationalizes her decision to leave Hal as vital to a greater plan for her life (WHATEVER THAT MAKES ME). The next morning, she faces off against a policy-singing Hal and his surprise partner, Ben, in a shockingly close contest that stuns the world of high school forensics (RESOLVED).
Hal and Jenny reconnect once more post-debate, and Hal knows that everything that’s just happened — his failures, his embarrassment, Jenny leaving him — was worth the fight, and that even in life’s deepest disappointments, there are good reasons for immense hope (YOU WERE THERE).