The story is set in 1979, in a Santa Barbara, California boarding house. The semi-autobiographical protagonist is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old high school student. His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorcee, runs the boarding house. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a tenant, is a photographer, and is being treated for cervical cancer. William (Billy Crudup), another tenant, is a carpenter and mechanic, who lived on a hippie commune. Jamie's best friend is Julie (Elle Fanning), who often spends the night with Jamie but does not want to have sex with him because it would destroy their friendship.