The shot-girls in one of the city’s toughest bars form a resilient, loyal family but when one of them is murdered, their precarious lives spin out of control.
A young woman drives recklessly along River Road in Louisville, Kentucky. She is being followed. The car following then speeds up, clearly intent on forcing the women off the road. The woman accelerates, takes a turn to quickly. Her car crashes through the safety barrier and into the river . . .
Dusty, a recovering addict with a haunted past, is barely making ends meet. She sleeps rough some nights and struggles to make it to her court-ordered meetings and her job at the gas station. With a little tough love from an ex-cop and fellow alcoholic, Ben, Dusty is walking the straight and narrow, but only just. Her life accelerates into the fast lane when she meets the shot-girls. Kelly, Anna, Chelsea and Shell share the highs and lows of working in one of the toughest bars in the city. They make great money and their uncompromising loyalty to one another is enviable – and makes running the gauntlet of constant sexual harassment just bearable.
But the cracks are beginning to show: Kelly is trying to leave town but she hasn’t told the other girls yet. She’s also cheating on her bartender boyfriend, Colson, with a wealthy man she believes to be a ticket to something more. Anna carries the weight of nursing school and her father’s debilitating illness on her shoulders–ever fearing that she won’t make enough or be enough. This translates into her fears about her own sexuality, something she’s unwilling to share with her friends. Shell too is living a double life: her strict Catholic family do not know what she does for a living. When her brother Nico, who is still heartbroken over Kelly, returns from the army after having attempted suicide, Shell finds herself trying and failing to put out all of the fires. Finally Chelsea’s ex-husband, Todd is threatening to sue for full custody over their daughter. With the threat of court, Chelsea goes back to selling herself for money in order to pay the legal fees.
After Dusty crosses paths with the shot-girls at the gas station, Kelly offers her a job. At first Dusty doesn’t want to risk her sobriety. But when faced with having to pay back the debts of her incarcerated brother, Menalaus, Dusty is forced to reconsider her options. But the women at the bar do not give Dusty the welcome she expects and Dusty is forced, with violence, to prove just how far she is prepared to go.
Once she proves herself to the shot-girls, Dusty is accepted into the group and for a short period she feels like she has a new family, a new home. Something she has never experienced before.
Meanwhile Jimmy, the leader of a criminal organization in the city, becomes more determined than ever to punish Dusty for the sins of her family. The day Dusty is threatened and told to pay off his debts, Menalaus, is released from prison and a war between the two gangs seems imminent.
Caught in a trap set unwittingly by her brother, Menalaus, the criminal Jimmy and a corrupt probation officer, to whom she’s forced to give the money she earns at the bar, Dusty finds refuge and courage with her new girlfriends. Their high spirits and devil-may-care attitudes keep her head above water.
Despite all the pressures and the need to keep parts of their lives secret, even from each other, the shot-girls go to Shell’s family’s BBQ where the sense of community and joy alleviate the stresses of their lives. But living double lives has its own intoxicating drive. They all enjoy playing “good girls” amongst this conservative family.
The descent from that high is swift. Kelly reveals she intends to get out of town but before Dusty can pry, Kelly jumps into the river for a swim: Dusty follows, grateful for her new friend. But Kelly is clearly hiding some impending doom.
The next night at the bar something is wrong with Kelly. She’s late and an argument with her boyfriend, Colson, only reveals Chelsea’s love for the bartender and her strange loyalty to him.
At the bar, the special attraction this night is the Dunk Tank: the girls take turns sitting in their bathing suits above a tank of water, the patrons taking “shots” at the girl in order unseat her. The potential for violence hangs heavily in the air.
When the night is in full swing, Dusty sees Kelly arguing with a stranger; he seems familiar but she can’t make him out in the chaotic and crowded environment.
Then Dusty gets hurt: she slips from the seat in the Dunk Tank, and hits her head. With no one else to call, Dusty leans on Ben (the police officer from her AA meeting) to take her home. As she’s waiting for him, she’s approached by the debt collectors; this time they intend to hurt her. She narrowly escapes and the experience bonds her closer to Ben.
Meanwhile the car chase is replayed: Kelly is being hounded by another car along River Road. Kelly swerves off of the road, down the embankement and plummets into the river. As her car descends into the black water, there are two pairs of feet kicking at the back window. One pair is clearly that of a child.
After going to bed with Ben, Dusty sees she has many missed calls from Kelly. The women rush to the scene of the accident. They fall apart when they witness the police carrying Kelly’s lifeless body from the river. But Dusty cannot stand the grief of this new loss. Instead of grieving with her new friends, she goes to a bar and does the one thing she knows will numb her pain: she takes a drink.