We see a white feather floating through the air down towards a bus stop in Savannah, Georgia. Sitting at the bus stop is the titular character, Forrest Gump, a dim-witted but kind man wearing dirty sneakers. He picks up the feather and puts it into a book in his suitcase. On his lap is a box of chocolates, and as the bus arrives, a woman comes and sits beside him. He introduces himself as Forrest Gump, and offers her a chocolate, but she ignores him.
"My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get," he says, as she reads a magazine. He comments on her shoes and how comfortable they must be, and tells her that his mama always said that one could tell a lot about a person by their shoes. "I've worn lots of shoes," he says, before launching into a story about his first pair of shoes.
We see a young Forrest looking down at his legs in a doctor's office. He wears leg braces that are meant to help correct a curved spine, and he wanders around the doctor's office awkwardly. His mother walks him out of the doctor's office, and we hear Forrest tell us in voiceover that his mother named him after the Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the creator of the Ku Klux Klan.
We see young Forrest getting his brace stuck in a grate in the curb. "Don't let anybody tell you they're better than you, Forrest," Mrs. Gump says, "If God intended everybody to be the same, he'd have given us all braces on our legs." In voiceover, Forrest tells us, "Mama always had a way of explaining things so I could understand them."
He narrates that he grew up a half a mile from Greenbow, Alabama in a house that they inherited from his mother's family. It's a big house, and Forrest tells us that Mrs. Gump let out the rooms to people passing through, in order to earn money. They get to the house, and Mrs. Gump tells Forrest, "You're the same as everybody else. You are no different."
Suddenly, the scene shifts to a school principal telling Mrs. Gump that Forrest is "different," that his IQ is 75. He insists that the minimum IQ to attend public school is 80 and tells her that Forrest has to go to a special school. Mrs. Gump does not accept this, and insists that Forrest be allowed to attend public school. The principal asks Mrs. Gump if she is married, and she tells him that her husband is on vacation.
That night, we see Forrest sitting outside the house, while his mother evidently has sex with the principal to gain him admission to the public school. The principal comes out and says to Forrest, "Your mama sure does care about your schooling, son." He tries to get Forrest to talk to him, but Forrest just begins making panting and gasping noises.
As Mrs. Gump reads a book to Forrest, he asks her what "vacation" means, referring to his father, and she tells him, "Vacation is when you go somewhere, and you don't ever come back."
The scene shifts and we see Mrs. Gump gathering the tenants in her house for a dinner. She goes upstairs to find Forrest, who is in a tenant's room. The tenant happens to be a young Elvis Presley, who is playing "Hound Dog" on his guitar for Forrest. Forrest dances for Elvis in his leg braces, and Elvis takes inspiration in Forrest's dance moves. We see Forrest and his mother at a later date, walking past a television store and seeing Elvis singing "Hound Dog" on a television show.
We see Forrest getting on the bus for the first day of school. The bus driver is a young woman with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, who introduces herself to Forrest as "Dorothy Harris." Forrest climbs on and can't find a seat. "You can sit here if you want," says a young girl, finally. In voiceover, Forrest says, "I had never seen anyone so beautiful in my whole life. She was like an angel." Forrest begins talking to the girl, whose name is Jenny.
We see Jenny and Forrest running through a field, then climbing a tree. She teaches him how to read and he teaches her how to swing from the branches of the tree. On another day, we see a group of bullies throw something at Forrest's head and call him names. Jenny tells him to run away, and he hobbles down the road. As the boys get on their bikes and Jenny yells, "Run, Forrest, run!" Forrest begins to pick up speed and the braces burst off of his legs. "From that day forward, if I was going somewhere, I was running," present-day Forrest tells his bench companion. The young Forrest runs away from the bullies, all across town, and to Jenny's house.
In voiceover, Forrest tells us that Jenny's mother died when she was 5, and her father was "some kind of farmer." "He was a very loving man. He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters," Forrest says, which we infer means he molested Jenny. As Forrest arrives at Jenny's house, he asks her why she wasn't in school, and she grabs his hand and brings him into the nearby cornfield, as her father comes out of the house holding a liquor bottle and calling for her.
In the corn, Jenny tells Forrest to pray with her, and she prays to God to make her a bird so that she can fly far away. "Mama always said that God is mysterious," Forrest narrates, "He didn't turn Jenny into a bird that day. Instead, he had the police say Jenny didn't have to stay in that house no more." We see Jenny going to live with her grandmother in a trailer.
On a thundery night, Jenny sneaks over to Forrest's house and climbs into bed with him. "Jenny and me was best friends all the way up through high school," Forrest narrates, and we see them all grown up. Suddenly, a boy throws a rock at Forrest's head, just like in the beginning, and a car pulls up to chase him. Jenny tells him to run yet again, and he does, sprinting down the dirt road. Somehow, he manages to outrun the car, jumping a fence. Suddenly, he sprints across the football field in the middle of a game, and the coaches look up, impressed at his speed.
The scene shifts and we see that Forrest gets to go to college based on his football skills. He is a football player at the University of Alabama, and we see him making a touchdown, then running straight off the field with the ball. "He may be the stupidest son of the bitch I've ever seen, but he sure is fast," the coach says, grinning at their victory.
We see Forrest at college as it is being integrated. Two black students are admitted to the university, "but only after Governor George Wallace had carried out his symbolic threat to stand in the schoolhouse door," a newscaster tells us. Forrest arrives at a protest about the admittance, and asks his friend Earl what's going on. When Earl tells him, Forrest walks over to where George Wallace, a staunch segregationist is giving a speech and appears in the background of the news footage. Then, when one of the black students drops their notebook walking into the school, Forrest runs and grabs it, handing it to her. We then see news footage of George Wallace getting shot at as he attends a rally for his presidential candidacy.
The scene shifts back to the present, and Forrest's bench companion has to get on her bus. A woman and her toddler son take the place of the woman who gets on the bus, and Forrest continues his story. The woman tells Forrest that she remembers the shooting of Wallace, and he tells the woman that Jenny went to a girls' college.
The scene shifts back to the past, and we see Forrest waiting for Jenny outside her dormitory in the rain. A car pulls up and Jenny and her boyfriend begin kissing, but when she accidentally hits her head, Forrest goes running over to the car to save her. Forrest opens the car and punches the boyfriend, but Jenny yells at him to stop, insisting that the boyfriend wasn't hurting her. The boyfriend gets in the car and drives away, leaving Jenny and Forrest in the rain. Forrest hands her some chocolate, and she invites him into her dorm room.
Before we know much about the plot, we are introduced to the eponymous Forrest Gump, a slow-witted man who likes to sit at a bus stop and tell strangers about his life. He speaks in a strange, slow drawl, and waits at a bus stop without ever getting on the bus. Before five minutes have passed, the audience is charmed by the eccentric and unusual protagonist, his penchant for quoting his mother, his desire to speak to anyone who will listen. Forrest Gump is not a typical movie hero, but a kind of mystical figure, almost spirit-like in his unusual habits and perspective.
Forrest begins to tell his life story to a woman sitting beside him at the bus stop, and we are launched into his autobiography. We hardly know anything about Forrest before we are brought through his life story, told in epic terms by the naive man. What begins is a sort of American folk tale, a story about an antiheroic young man who beat the odds to grow up and evolve. In the story of Forrest's life, we see that his life has been as charmed and outrageous as it has been difficult, equal parts magical and devastating.
Forrest exists at the margins of society, and has since he was a little boy, and his mother is portrayed as someone who encouraged him to believe in himself no matter what. Dim-witted and with a curved spine, Forrest gets some gawks from local strangers, but his mother insists that Forrest should never let anyone make him think they are better than him. Thus we see that even though Forrest does not exactly fit in with the rest of the world on a superficial level, his mother was influential in encouraging him to believe that he belonged nonetheless.
At the core of Mrs. Gump's mothering is her insistence that Forrest is no different than anyone else and ought to be afforded the same opportunities. While everyone else in the world insists that he is, in fact, not like everyone else, with a very low IQ and a strange way of seeing things, Mrs. Gump begs to differ, and holds fast to her conviction that Forrest deserves the same treatment as everyone else. It is this maternal belief that gives Forrest his sense of self, even in a world that does not think he should fit in.
The most important relationship in Forrest's life, apart from his relationship with his mother, is his friendship with Jenny. Jenny does not have the same intellectual limitations that Forrest does, but she also feels like an outsider, and has trouble fitting in. Her discontent has to do with living in an impoverished and abusive household, and she takes just as much comfort in Forrest's friendship as he does in hers. They are a strange pair, an awkward and developmentally stunted young man with a beautiful, sad young woman, but they are loyal and kind to one another.