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Brooklyn, modern day. Splitting from her boyfriend Nate (Gary Richardson), Lilian (Grace Van Patten) migrates just a couple of blocks to move in with celebrated but reclusive writer Julia Price (Emily Mortimer) and her wannabe musician husband Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The Prices, old family friends, last saw Lilian when she was just a child, but she has nowhere else to go – her mum has passed away and her dad is in Paris with his new French girlfriend, Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin).
A welcome dinner quickly establishes that Julia is socially awkward and prickly, and that she and Lilian have little in common: “Help yourself to books but just don’t take them out of the house,” says Julia, to which Lilian replies, “I’m not much of a reader.” Don, meanwhile, is eager to make Lilian feel at home and to regain his youth/cool credentials – he hangs out with Lilian in the den that he built in the garden, playing guitar and sharing a smoke until Julia instructs him to terminate his nonsense.
Returning into the house, Lilian sends a video message to her father, who rarely gets back to her. She then opens the journal that she keeps to make sketches and notes, only to find that someone, surely Julia, has drawn a moustache onto a pencil portrait.
That night, lying in bed, Lilian listens to Don and Julia argue until Don leaves the house with a slam of the door. He doesn’t come back.
The next morning, Lilian bumps into the Prices’ dogwalker George (Timm Sharp). He is cooking breakfast for his canine charge, Buddy, and, thinking that Lillian is Julia walking into the kitchen, says, “I didn’t hear the end of your message – it cut out right after ‘entitled oaf’…” Lilian introduces herself as ‘the entitled oaf’ and the two trade wary barbs.
Julia has written a message to Lilian in her journal, saying that in lieu of rent, she must water the plants, tend to the recycling and cook dinner each night. Lilian plans to be out of the house by Tuesday, when her father returns to New York, but agrees to the terms in the short term.
That evening Lilian prepares a stodgy Mac ‘n’ Cheese and a salad drenched in mayonnaise. George informs her that “No one over the age of 11 would eat that” but Lilian leaves it outside Julia’s room. The next morning, a note from Julia criticises the food but the tone of the missives between the two women is beginning to thaw, with the spikiness now laced with humour and affection. Julia’s note tells Lilian to venture out rather than slump in the house all day.
Lilian takes Julia at her word and soon bumps into Nate and his new girlfriend Laura (Condola Rashad) in the street. Learning that Laura made a documentary set in Syria, Lilian aims to impress them by saying that she’s making a documentary on Julia Price. She begins to write a note to Julia to ask for her permission and participation, but loses courage and tears it out.
Lilian moves ahead anyway, interviewing cameramen in a bar. She has a one-night stand with one of them, a guy who is more interested in a hook up than a job, and hires another, Sol (John Early).
When Lilian next bumps into Nate in the street, Sol is with her, and pretends to be her boyfriend as well as her cameraman. He waxes lyrical about Lilian’s talent and her drive to get the documentary up and running. Lilian has, in fact, hired a studio with her father’s money, and has set up interviews with the likes of Zadie Smith, Jonathan Ames and Martin Amis to glean insights into Julia’s life and work.
The next day, Lilian takes Julia her dinner, knocks on the door and enters. Inside she finds Julia’s own journal, which muses on using Lilian for material. The notes describe Lilian as “feral”, “stubborn” and “desperate for affirmation”, but also “bright”, “creative” and compelling”.
When Jonathan Ames is interviewed at the studio, he tells Lilian that he saw her father at the Russian dance last night – a shock, as she did not know that he was back in New York – and that he once attended a party where Lilian, as a little girl, played with her mother. He describes how he watched Julia watching them, enraptured.
George meets a fellow dog walker, Pauline (Mary Holland), in the park. He then meets up with Lilian who tells him about how her mother died in a lake in India, before confessing that she is “not lovable” because her mother left her when she was young.
Zadie Smith, in her interview for the documentary, tells of how English writer Julia moved to New York after losing a baby. Smith talks passionately about a paragraph in one of Price’s novels, in which the narrator watches a young mother interact with her daughter.
The next day, Julia leaves out a copy of her novel Good Posture, along with a note steering Lilian to that very segment. The note reads, “To lovable Lilian, an inspiration then and now.”
Back in the local park, George and Pauline are getting closer, their conversation fuelled by their shared love of dogs. Lilian then sits down with George in the park and proudly shows him the note that Julia left her.
Her contentment is soon shattered however, when she arrives back at the house to find Sol sitting at the table with Julia, blabbing about the documentary. Later, she leaves Julia’s dinner outside the door and goes out to get drunk before calling on George with a takeaway. They settle down to watch a movie together and Lilian scooches over and tries to kiss George, who tells her to go home. She slams the door as she leaves.
Lilian meets up with her dad and Celeste for lunch, but is devasted to find that they don’t want her to move in with them now that they are back in town. She instead moves into Don’s den in the garden and writes a heartfelt apology to Julia, while also taking the time to read Good Posture. Within the pages of the copy of the book that Julia gave her is a photo of Lilian as a baby, with her mum.
The next day, placing Julia’s lunch outside her door, Lilian is surprised to be invited in. Julia asks Lilian to play the song that she’s overheard her practising on a ukulele, and the two women sing along together.
Lilian and George make up when he enters the coffeeshop where she now works and orders two coffees – the second one is for Pauline, who is waiting outside and is now his dog-walking business partner.
The film ends with tentative new beginnings: Julia at last leaves the house to walk the dog with Don, and Lilian moves out to start with the business of getting on with her own life