Born in northeast Philadelphia to Kathleen [Mercedes Ruehl] and Joe [Louis Giambalvo] Carangi, Gia [Angelina Jolie] is the youngest of the couple's three children. Growing up in a home echoing with the travails of her parents' marriage, which is headed for the rocks, Gia longs for escape, dreaming of faraway places and the time when she will be old enough to make some of those dreams come true. Gia is 11 when the mother she adores walks out on the marriage, leaving her and her brothers to live with their father.
By 1977, Gia has become a stunningly beautiful young woman, but still a heartbroken little girl wanting to be with her mother. She heads to New York to become a model. Nervous and insecure, Gia buries her vulnerability and comes up with attitude, quickly landing a spot at the high-profile agency of Wilhelmina Cooper [Faye Dunaway]. Gia is a natural in front of the camera, with a riveting personal style and "eyes like a thunderstorm."
Her career takes off as photographers clamor to work with her. Gia's tough attitude intimidates most people. Increasingly famous, she is quickly drawn into the fast-paced lifestyle of the glamorous fashion world - nights at Studio 54, partying 'til dawn. Burning the candle at both ends, Gia turns to pills and cocaine to maintain energy and to continue to feel pretty.
During this exciting period as a top international model, Gia forges two close relationships with people who stabilize her life and give her temporary satisfaction: Wilhelmina, who serves as a surrogate mother, and Linda [Elizabeth Mitchell], a make-up artist with whom Gia falls deeply in love.
In January 1979, she lands her very first cover, for Italian Cosmopolitan, and also appears in her first major advertising shots for Versace in American Vogue. In April, Gia appears on the covers of American Cosmopolitan, British Vogue and French Vogue. Linda gives her the confidence to reach out to her mother Kathleen. Gia renews her ties on a surprise visit to Philadelphia, and Kathleen, overjoyed by her daughter's success, makes trips to New York to visit her.
Wilhelmina dies of lung cancer in 1980, sending Gia into a personal and professional tailspin. Turning to cocaine and heroin, she begins to show up at photo shoots high, with visible track marks, or cancels them altogether. Her professional reputation is in tatters. In her craze to get drugs, she casts off her sensational career and friends, sinking to unimaginable depths of depravity.
Linda, along with Joe Carangi, supports Gia's return to Philadelphia to enter a methadone treatment program. Determined to resume modeling and live happily ever after with Linda, Gia signs with a new agency and is once again in demand, but her drug problems persist, despite sporadic attempts at rehabilitation. Ultimately, heroin costs Gia her relationship with Linda and ends any hope of continuing her career.
Gia eventually checks into a mangy rehab facility for indigent addicts in Philadelphia and, after a slow recovery, starts building a new life for herself. In late 1985, she notices the first symptoms of AIDS, but isn't certain what it is. Collapsing in her apartment, she is taken to the hospital where the fatal disease is diagnosed.
Kathleen's new husband refuses to allow Gia to live with them for fear he would lose his job if anyone knew Gia had AIDS. As a result, Gia is forced to move into a hotel alone. Trying to buy enough heroin to kill herself, Gia is beaten by junkies and winds up back in the hospital. By June 1986, the disease has transformed her young body into that of a woman three times her age. In October, Kathleen is by Gia's side in the hospital, watching her young daughter decay.
On November 18, 1986, two months shy of her 27th birthday, Gia Carangi becomes one of the first women in America to die of AIDS.