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Croyden is an upscale college preparatory school in Maine that hires teachers for their advanced courses who are accomplished professionals.
Jack Marcus is a writer and poet who teaches the advanced writing class. He's a good teacher who inspires his students. He demonstrates how some carefully chosen words and phrases can stimulate the listener's imagination to produce vivid mental imagery. One particular grievance of his involves the way in which young developing minds have been hijacked by the tedious distractions of modern technical gadgetry. He seems to be afflicted with writer's block and hasn't come out with any original work in several years. He publishes the school's literary magazine, which the school administration is planning to shut down for budgetary reasons. He is a high-functioning alcoholic who chronically arrives late to work and is on the verge of being fired. He is divorced and has an adult son from his first marriage, but they have become estranged because of Jack's drinking and general irresponsibility.
Dina Delsanto is an artist who has just been hired to teach the advanced art class, which has the same students as Jack's writing class. Dina was a successful painter in New York City, but she now has difficulty painting or even walking and engaging in daily activities because of severe rheumatoid arthritis. She can no longer fasten buttons, open medicine bottles or hold paint brushes. She moved to Maine, where her sister and her mother live, so that they can help her during the spells when her arthritis worsens. As a teacher, she is a perfectionist with no interest in her students' personal lives. She simply wants them to concentrate on creating the best works of art that they can. She shows them the difference between paintings that merely demonstrate craft and paintings that evoke feeling as well. She struggles to paint again by overcoming her physical limitations as well as her own artistic difficulties. She finally creates a good work of art and sets it aside to dry. She has, incidentally, professed a complete disdain for the spoken and printed word. She insists that artistically rendered images are the only worthwhile media for expressing "truth".
Jack's colleagues and friends perceive him as attention-getting, obnoxious and charming. Once he gets wind of Dina's personal philosophy, he provokes an argument with her over which is more important, words or pictures. Their students are drawn in to the conflict with class assignments demonstrating the superiority of words over pictures or pictures over words. Dina agrees to have her students contribute their own works of art to Jack's literary magazine. They decide to have an assembly in which each side will put on a presentation arguing the case for words and for pictures. The school administration becomes impressed enough with all of this activity to retain his services as an instructor.
Jack pursues Dina romantically and ultimately succeeds. But, during his first night over, he gets drunk on her vodka and crashes headlong into her newest painting. He further confesses to plagiarizing a poem from his own son, a moral failing for which Dina is even more unforgiving. She throws him out and tells him she doesn't want to have anything more to do with him.
He confesses the plagiarism to the school board and hands in his resignation. He asks only to continue for the rest of the year and put on the War on Words and Pictures assembly program. The board grants him his request, and the movie concludes with a satisfying resolution at the aforementioned assembly.