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Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is a young writer seeking to define himself. He misses his late mother, Jody (Julianne Moore), and her loving nature. But his father, Jonathan, is not even a memory, as Nick has not seen the man in 18 years.
Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) has long defined himself as a great writer, "a master storyteller." After abandoning his wife and child, Jonathan scrapes through life on his own terms, and ends up serving time in prison for cashing forged checks. After prison, he drives a cab for a number of years, but with his drinking and eccentricities now accelerating, he loses his job. Despite the occasional grandiose letter to his son, he has remained absent from Nick's life.
Suddenly facing eviction from his apartment, Jonathan impulsively reaches out to Nick and the two come face-to-face. The older man is eloquent and formidable; overwhelmed, Nick nonetheless prepares to integrate his father into his own life. But, as quickly as he materialized, Jonathan flits away again.
Moving on, Nick takes a job at a homeless shelter, where he learns from Captain (Wes Studi) and Joy (Lili Taylor) how to relate to the guests who arrive night after night. Seeing the homeless – some permanently, some temporarily so – and hearing their stories, Nick finds purpose in his own life and work. He also sustains a romance with a co-worker, Denise (Olivia Thirlby). Then one night, Jonathan arrives, seeking a bed, and Nick's senses of self and compassion falter. To give the two of them a shot at a real future, Nick will have to decide whom to seek redemption for first.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and brief nudity