Ben Crandall (Ethan Hawke) is a young teenage boy living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., who experience vivid dreams about flying through clouds and over a vast, city-like circuit board, usually after falling asleep watching 1950s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds (1953) is a favorite). Every night, upon waking from the dream, he draws the circuit board. Ben shows the sketches to his friend, child prodigy Wolfgang Muller (River Phoenix). At school, Ben develops a crush on Lori Swenson (Amanda Peterson), but he isn't sure whether it's mutual. Both boys meet punkish-but-likable Darren Woods (Jason Presson), with whom they share their circuit-board concepts. Wolfgang builds an actual microchip based on Ben's drawings. The chip enables the generation of an electromagnetic bubble which surrounds a pre-determined area. As the boys discover, the bubble is capable of moving at near-limitless distances and speeds without the usual effect from inertia. They construct a rudimentary spacecraft out of an abandoned Tilt-A-Whirl car; they named their ship the Thunder Road, after Bruce Springsteen's song of the same title. Their experiments with the Thunder Road draw attention from the United States government, which sends agents to scout the area for UFOs.