Rent is set in the early 1990's, and focuses on a group of friends living in the East Village of Manhattan. The film opens with the main cast members singing "Seasons of Love" after which we meet roommates Mark and Roger, who are angrily complaining because they have been told that they need to pay their rent, which had been previously been waived by their landlord. We also find out that Mark is an aspiring filmmaker and Roger is a musician.
It is Christmas Eve, and their former roommate and friend Tom Collins shows up, but gets mugged and is left lying injured in an alley. He is found by Angel, a drag queen and street performer who helps him. Angel tells Collins that he's on his way to Life Support, a support group for people with AIDS, and Collins tells him that he has AIDS, too.
As Roger strums moodily on his guitar struggling to write a song, we see in flashbacks how he contracted AIDS. He had a girlfriend named April who was a drug addict, and he eventually started doing drugs with her. Eventually they both were infected with HIV; April is now dead, and Roger has gotten clean, but fears he will die from his disease before he writes a great song. While he's moping, a girl shows up at the door. She is Mimi, an exotic dancer and druggie who lives on the floor below in the building. Her power has also been cut off, and she asks Roger to light her candle. He does so, and she flirts with him for a while before leaving.
From here, the film takes us to the club where Mimi is dancing around a pole in front of a bunch of slavering men. Afterwards she heads home in the mood to party; she grabs her heroin stash and climbs in through the window of Mark and Roger's apartment. Roger is there, still trying to write his song, and Mimi tries to get him to do drugs and have sex with her. She sings a song which encourages him to forget about everything and live just for the day. Though obviously attracted to her, Roger grows angry, demanding to know why, if she's so carefree, she needs drugs. He tells her to get out.