Cliff Spab (Stephen Dorff) and his friend Joe Dice (Jack Noseworthy) go out one evening to buy some beer in a Los Angeles convenience store. While there, a group of masked and heavily armed terrorists take Cliff, Joe, and three other people hostage. The terrorists, who call themselves S.P.L.T. Image, have a video camera, and they tape their hostages. During the month-long standoff with the police, S.P.L.T. Image's only demand is that their broadcasts be televised on worldwide television live and uncut, or else the hostages will be killed. After two of the hostages are killed, Cliff, Joe and another hostage—a young teenage girl named Wendy Pfister (Reese Witherspoon)—are the only ones left. After 36 days, Cliff become indifferent to being killed, and he says repeatedly, "So fucking what?", in reply to his captors' threats to kill him. Because of the coverage, this makes Cliff a media icon.
The movie skips forward, picking up in the hospital. Cliff, we learn, had shot his way to freedom, at the cost of a bullet in his shoulder, and—more significantly—Joe's life. Despite Joe's death, Cliff is branded a hero for saving Wendy and killing all the terrorists. He's picked up from the hospital by his brother Scott (David Barry Gray) and taken home, where Cliff soon becomes uncomfortable. He does not appreciate either the reporters camped outside his front lawn, nor his parents, who welcome him home awkwardly. Cliff cannot stand the presence of his domineering father and weak-willed mother, and he flees their house. But on the street, he finds that his life cannot go back to what it was before the convenience store. His line—abbreviated as S.F.W.—is on banners, newspapers, CDs, and on billboard advertisements. At the fast food restaurant where he works, called Burger Boy, he finds his name and image on the board with a "Special 36¢ Cliff Spab Burger" being marketed in commemoration of his 36 days in captivity.
Cliff flees to the home of Joe's older sister Monica (Joey Lauren Adams), who tells Cliff that she resents that he has gotten all the media attention, whereas her brother, who got killed during the siege, has not gotten any sympathy or even attention from anyone. After spending a night of empty passion with Monica, Cliff leaves in the morning. Cliff calls upon his best friend Morrow Streeter (Jake Busey) to help him. Morrow takes Cliff to hide out in the elegant home of his sister Janet (Pamela Gidley), a lawyer who gives Cliff some advice. She advises that he should not pass up any opportunity to exploit his fame for personal gain. Alienated with life, Cliff leaves the following day by hitchhiking out of Los Angeles. He gets a ride with a disaffected couple who confide with him about their marital troubles; this inspires Cliff not to run from his problems since they will only follow him. Cliff decides to take advantage of his newfound fame, first by checking into a fancy hotel, and then holding press conferences, making public appearances, and holding autograph signings—all generally portraying him as a rebel.
But Cliff's real desire is to find Wendy, whom he also sees on the news. Wendy, however, is refusing to comment about the ordeal in the convenient store. Cliff eventually manages to track her down. Soon, a romantic attraction develops, but their relationship is hampered by reporters and paparazzi tailing both of them. One evening, Cliff slips out of his hotel room, meets with Wendy, and they travel to the location of the convenience store siege, where they find that the building has been closed down and boarded up as a crime scene. After reminiscing how he and Joe managed to overpower their captors, and killed all of them in a huge gunfight where Joe was killed and Cliff was wounded, Cliff then tells Wendy he only wishes that he could just give up all this fame and celebrity status so the two of them can have a quiet romantic life together.
A few days later, during a public appearance at a local high school, Cliff and Wendy arrive in the school auditorium to a cheering crowd of students. All of them are chanting Cliff's line, "So fucking what!", except for one distraught looking student. Her name is Barbara Wyler, nicknamed "Babs" (Amber Benson). Babs just sits silently, looking angry. She pushes her way through the crowd and points a gun at Cliff and Wendy on the stage and yells, "Everything matters!" Babs opens fire, seriously wounding both Cliff and Wendy. Media attention now switches to Babs Wyler, who is arrested, booked, and indicted for this crime. Her line of "Everything matters" becomes the new public catchphrase, replacing Cliff's "S.F.W." line. As reporters and media people talk about Babs' actions, the wounded Cliff and Wendy, now in the hospital, are relieved that their ordeal with the media is over, and they now can slip away to re-start their romance with their new found privacy.
It contains 13 tracks, with two of them, "S.F.W." and "Spab 'N' Janet Evening/The Green Room", being written especially for this movie:
The director had this to say: In a way this story parallels what happened to (Kurt) Cobain, says director Jefery Levy of his S.F.W. (So F -- -ing What). It's a movie about a regular kid (Stephen Dorff) with an extraordinary sensitivity. That's why Levy wanted to include Nirvana's All Apologies on the S.F.W. soundtrack and asked Cobain to screen a rough cut shortly before his suicide in April. Kurt really responded to the movie, says Levy, who has not yet been able to secure permission to include the song. Meanwhile, Levy is using Teenage Whore, a tune by Kurt's widow, Courtney Love, and her band, Hole. When she was responding (to Cobain's suicide note in a taped broadcast) she kept using the term 'So f -- -ing what, Levy recalls. It was weird.
Similar era films and popular culture include: