Death and violence anger a twelve-year-old drug courier, who sets his employers against each other.
Fresh (Sean Nelson) is a 12-year-old drug dealer who finds himself trapped in a web of poverty, corruption and racial tension in Brooklyn, New York. When his drug-addict sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright) starts sleeping with local drug lord Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito), Fresh calls upon the skills he learned playing chess with his alcoholic father and speed-chess champion Sam (Samuel L. Jackson) and devises a complex strategy that will free both himself and his sister.
- 2 year old Michael "Fresh" stops at a latina woman's apartment to pick up dime bags of heroin before he goes to school. Fresh notices that she has given him the wrong amount and Fresh tries to warn her that his boss Esteban will be angry with the incorrect amount. He sees the track marks on her arm, indicating that she is a drug addict trying to swindle him out of his delivery. He leaves, disgusted.
Next, he visits another apartment where several women and one man, Chilli, are measuring and cutting bricks of crack. Chilli insults Fresh and calls him a little boy doing a man's job. Chilli also makes crude comments about Fresh's sister, which angers Fresh. He rushes out because he is late to school. He meets up with another of Esteban's employees to count the drugs. The employee tells Fresh that Esteban wants to see him after handing Fresh his share of the money.
Fresh arrives at school where is his scolded by his teacher, Mrs. Coleman, for being late. Fresh acts like a normal boy by playing around with his best friend, Chuckie. At recess, the boys watch the girl's cheerleading team and Fresh talks to one of the girls, Rosie, who thinks he is cute. Fresh's friends notice the two and embarrassed, Fresh leaves the group and talks to her at a distance through a fence in the school yard so they won't tease him.
After school, Fresh goes to a forested, abandoned area to put his new earnings in a secret hiding place, where we see that he has amassed a substantial savings. From there, he goes to his grandmother's house where all of his aunt and cousins reside. Fresh greets everyone but no one pays him any attention. He talks to his estranged sister Nichole while another cousin warns Fresh that if he comes home late again and "messes up (their current privilege of living at their Aunt's house)" she would kill him.
The next morning, Fresh is selling drugs when a pregnant woman approaches him, desperate for crack. She tries to get him to lower his price, complaining that other sellers let her have the drug for cheap. Another desperate drug addict offers to perform fellatio on Fresh in exchange for drugs. Fresh refuses and slaps her, sending her away. He goes to get paid by another boss, Corky, who gives him fifty dollars. Fresh demands more money after seeing that Jake, a teenage lookout, makes more money than him. Impressed with his ambition, Corky agrees. Corky tells Fresh he will go far one day.
Fresh takes the subway to a local park to play chess with a man who is undefeated for money while his father Sam, a skilled chess player, sits at another table watching him. After winning, Fresh plays his father but he loses. Sam criticizes Fresh's strategy and Fresh leaves to visit Chuckie, who proposes to enter their dog, Roscoe, in a dogfight to earn money. Fresh refuses so Chuckie urges Fresh to get him a job with Esteban. Fresh rebuffs his suggestion, saying that Chuckie is too immature to be a drug dealer, and agrees to enter their pet into the fight. Fresh leaves him to visit Esteban, who is annoyed that Fresh is selling crack for other drug dealers. He warns Fresh that when it comes to crack dealing, Fresh will either die addicted to his own product or be killed by rival dealers or unstable drug addicts. Then Esteban begins asking about Nichole, making it known that he would like to have sex with her. Fresh is shocked and struggles to hide his emotions. Esteban presses him for information about Nichole and Fresh dodges the questions by claiming that Nichole is watched carefully by his aunt.
He leaves Esteban to go to the corner store where Nichole works. He bumps into James, Nichole's drug dealing boyfriend, who insults his appearance before allowing him to see Nichole. Fresh warns Nichole that Esteban is interested in her and asks her why she stays with James. She tells him that she doesn't love James; only the drugs he can supply her with. Fresh insists that he and their family loves her but Nichole dismisses him.
Fresh goes to watch a neighborhood basketball game, where Jake begins to show jealously towards a small kid, Curtis, and pushes him to the ground during the game. After Curtis scores a point, Jake becomes angered and leaves the court. Rosie sees Fresh and walks over to talk to him. As she does, Jake runs in and shoots Curtis, killing Rosie in the crossfire. As nearby kids scream, Jake threatens that if anyone talks, he will kill them. The police arrive shortly, demanding information, but Fresh doesn't tell them anything.
Fresh plays chess with his father Sam again who scolds him for being distracted. Fresh loses to his father, but is able to put his Father's king in "check" for the first time. The two go to his house, a broken down, cluttered and dirty mobile home, to celebrate. Later, Chuckie and Fresh arrive at the dogfight, where Fresh spots Jake. Fresh tries to convince Chuckie to take Roscoe out of the fight, but nevertheless, their dog wins. Chuckie wants to enter him into another fight but Fresh stops him, agreeing to get him a job with Esteban. They go to Esteban's apartment where they accidentally walk in on Esteban and Nichole finishing having sex. Esteban tells them to wait in another room, where Chuckie asks for a job. Esteban agrees and tells Fresh that he plans to groom Fresh to his protege and wants Fresh to stop selling for other dealers.
Meanwhile, Corky has the police hot on his trail since Jake's shooting attracted attention. It is a this point that Fresh devises an elaborate strategy that will ultimately remove himself and his sister from the projects. Fresh goes to another source, Hector, under the pretense of being the runner for Corky. Hector refuses to hand over the drugs to Fresh, fearing that the police will come after him. Fresh threatens him and offers him a substantial sum of cash, which we understand to be the entirety of Fresh's personal savings. Hector takes the money and tells Fresh where to pick up the drugs. Fresh says that the police have wire-tapped Corky's phone numbers and tells Hector not to call Corky.
At school, Chuckie can't resist bragging about his new job for Esteban. After school, he and Fresh buy science textbooks to hide bags of heroin in before going on the subway, where Chuckie mouths off to a police officer. Next, they go to an abandoned house where Fresh hides their stash in the floorboards while Chuckie keeps lookout with a gun. When leaving the building, three men step out from behind the corner approaching them. Chuckie tries to shoot at the men but trips. The gun falls under a car and Chuckie tries to grab it but an assailant shoots the tire and it flattens under Chuckie's hand, crushing it. Fresh runs back over to help him, but Chuckie is stuck. Fresh runs away and the assailants shoot Chuckie. Fresh is questioned by the police at the police station. They question him, but since they have no evidence to detain him, they let him go. One of the nicer detectives, Sgt. Perez, gives him his card.
Back at home, Fresh's aunt remonstrates sadly with him for getting involved in gunfire and tells him that she cannot risk the lives of her eleven other children for him. She informs him that he will be sent to a group home for a month. At school, Fresh's friends blame him for Chuckie's death and truly alone, Fresh shoots Chuckie's dog, Roscoe. When Fresh goes outside, Jake forces him in the car with the three assailants, revealing that Jake had ordered the attack. They bring Fresh to a room where Corky is waiting. Jake brags that he told Corky that Fresh was selling for other rival dealers but Fresh lies to the other henchmen that Fresh was being forced to sell for Jake. The henchmen turn on Jake and Jake's friend Red tries to convince them that Fresh is lying. However, Fresh insists that Jake and Red were planning to oust Corky and he was only saying that he was selling for Esteban as protection. Fresh tells them to call Hector, who will reveal the truth.
Corky calls Hector, where Hector confirms that he met with Fresh. The conversation is short, with Hector expressing concern over Corky' phone being wire-tapped, as Hector was told was the case, by Fresh. An enraged Corky hangs up, assuming that Jake is behind it all. Corky believes the version of events stated by Fresh and whips Red and Jake to death with chains. Corky turns to Fresh and asks who else is involved. Fresh names James.
Fresh then goes to Esteban's warehouse and tells him that Corky's crew had jumped him and says that Corky is planning to sell heroin as well. He tells Esteban that Corky's distributor is James and the two are planning to meet that night. He also adds that Nichole is seeing James secretly because James is plotting with Corky to take Esteban out. Corky and his men arrive at James' place and storm in while Esteban, Fresh, and two other men wait in Esteban's car, watching them. Esteban signals his henchmen to follow him and tells Fresh and Herbie to stay put.
Inside, Esteban's crew kills James, Corky, and Corky's men. Afterwards, they drive to Esteban's place and Esteban sees Nichole is there. He tells his henchmen to take Fresh home but Fresh makes them stop the car, claiming that he will spend the night at a friend's house. He runs into a convenience store and makes a phone call on a pay phone.
He then shows up at Esteban's apartment, claiming that he couldn't go home. Esteban lets him stay because he wants to confront Fresh for telling Nichole that he found her father in Staten Island and for urging her to leave for a rehabilitation center. Angry, Esteban demands to know what else Fresh is hiding from him. The three argue and Esteban tries to force Nichole to stay with him.
The police arrive and as Esteban goes to answer the door, Fresh hides something under the bed. The police officer turns out to be Sgt. Perez, who reveals that he is responding to a call about a domestic dispute. Esteban denies any argument and suggests they have the wrong apartment. Fresh comes forward and tells Perez that his sister is scared to speak up and how Esteban is a drug dealer who killed James and is now threatening his sister. Esteban swears that he is clean but Fresh tells Sgt. Perez to check under the bed. The policeman looks under the bed and find Esteban's gun (which he removed from the car after the shooting earlier) and the drugs Fresh planted. The police take Esteban away and Sgt. Perez promises to protect Fresh and his sister from any retaliation. Fresh expresses that he no longer wants to live in any "projects".
Next, Fresh walks to the park to play chess with his father, who is angry that Fresh is late. He tells Fresh that he will not give him anymore chess tips as he won't always be there to hold his hand. After his ranting, he looks at Fresh, who is staring back at him, crying. His father, bashfully looks away, hesitant to make his first chess move. Fresh continues to stare at his father, expressionless, as tears run down his cheeks.