NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by David G
Queens, New York City 1980: Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) gets caught making a comedic sketch of their teacher at public school. His classmate Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) also gets in trouble for making a joke during attendance. Johnny is scolded for being a troublemaker and blamed for a joke Paul makes, and the teacher reveals he has been held back to do 6th grade a second time. The two boys are kept inside as punishment during gym. They bond over Johnny’s Apollo Mission patches and their taste in music. Johnny tells Paul might not be able to go on the school field trip because it’s too expensive, but Paul suggests his family, which is richer, could pay for him.
At home, Paul shares a drawing he made with his grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins). Aaron encourages his skills and desire to be an artist when he grows up. Aaron gifts Paul with a rocket-making kit and promises to help him build it in the park soon. Paul has dinner with the rest of his Jewish-American family: his teasing older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), strict mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), nerdy father Irving (Jeremy Strong), Aaron, his grandmother and Aaron’s wife Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) and his Great Uncle Luis and Great Aunt Ruth. Esther announces she is running for the district school board, but Mickey questions why she would do so and suggests Paul join Ted at private school. Mickey suggests public schools are too crowded now that they are bringing in Black students from other neighborhoods. Paul gets scolded by his parents for laughing at Ruth’s story about the Holocaust and insulting Esther’s cooking, then tries to order Chinese food instead.
Later that night, Aaron tells Paul the story of how his mother immigrated to America to escape persecution in Ukraine because she was Jewish. He explains that she fled after her parents were murdered in front of her as a child, and she met her husband while living in Liverpool, which Paul finds impressive because of the connection to the Beatles. The following day, Irving wakes Paul and Ted up by banging kitchen utensils and blasting music.
Paul and Johnny go on the school field trip to the Guggenheim Museum, and Paul fantasizes about becoming a famous painter and having his work hung at the museum. The boys sneak off and go visit a pinball arcade. On the subway, two men tease Johnny for being interested in NASA and wanting to be an astronaut because they will never let him be one as a Black man. Back home, it is Aaron’s birthday, and he gifts Paul a set of paint and brushes, but Esther views Paul’s drawing as more of a hobby than a career path. The family celebrates Aaron’s birthday by going to see Private Benjamin. Aaron experiences leg pain on the walk home, but he tells everyone not to overreact. Paul tells his family he wants to become an artist when he grows up, but the entire family thinks he should focus on a career that will make him money.
In class, Johnny gets in trouble for talking back to the teacher again, and Paul is scolded for copying a famous piece of artwork in a class project and not drawing anything original. They both go to the bathroom and smoke marijuana. Johnny has, but they are caught and sent to the principal’s office. While meeting with the principal, Esther suggests Paul was influenced by the presence of Johnny in his class, and when the principal suggests Paul take remedial courses because he might be slow, Esther gets fed up and walks out. Esther prohibits Paul from hanging out with Johnny again but denies it is because Johnny is Black despite her prejudices. Paul gets home and hides in the bathroom, but an irate Irving beats him with a belt when he learns the news. Irving and Esther agree they need to send Paul to Ted’s school so that he can be disciplined appropriately. Johnny comes by the house and tells Paul that he is going to drop out of school now that Paul is leaving. They agree to meet for a concert the following week.
Paul hopes that his grandfather will help convince his parents to stay in public school. At dinner, Aaron reveals he encouraged his parents’ decision because he thinks it will be better for Paul since so many people hate Jewish families like theirs, so Paul and Ted need to have a good education. Paul goes to his first day at Forest Manor Prep, for which he must wear a suit-and-tie uniform and carry an attaché briefcase. Paul briefly meets businessman Fred Trump (John Diehl), a wealthy donor to the school, in the hallway, and Fred encourages him to attend the all-school assembly. Fred’s daughter Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain), gives a speech at the assembly about how she became a successful attorney through hard work and without any handouts. Paul is befriended by Topper (Dane West) and is scolded by his new teacher for a messy uniform. Johnny comes by the playground at lunch, but Paul acts distant toward him when two classmates approach and make racist comments regarding Johnny. Johnny asks if he can stay in Paul’s backyard clubhouse because authorities are looking for him and trying to put him in foster care; Paul reluctantly agrees but says he can no longer go to the concert.
Paul attends a session with a school counselor where he voices his concerns about trying to make new friends at school and how he is impressed by the school’s new computers and fresh textbooks. Paul launches the rockets in the park with Aaron over the weekend, and Aaron tells him that he must go away for a few days. Paul tells Aaron about how other students say racist things toward the Black kids but that he does nothing when they do; Aaron tells him he cannot continue this way and needs to speak up in the future on their behalf because he has certain privileges they do not, even if he is part of a marginalized group.
Irving wakes Paul up one morning, and Paul learns that Aaron has had surgery for bone cancer. They visit Aaron at the hospital, and he passes away soon after. The family attends the funeral; Irving expresses his gratefulness to Aaron for respecting him despite his father being a plumber and his fear of now being the head of the family. Paul finds Johnny living in the clubhouse with cuts all over his feet; Johnny insists he is fine and won’t stay for too long. Johnny sheds a tear thinking about how he had to say goodbye to his elderly grandma when it became clear she could no longer take care of him.
Paul comes up with a plan to help Johnny by stealing a computer from his school, selling it, and using the money so the two of them can run away to Florida and work at EPCOT. They sneak into the school at night and steal the computer; while doing so, Paul sees a drawing he made in his art class displayed in the hallway. Johnny brings the computer to a pawn shop, but the police are called, and Johnny and Paul are arrested. Police Sergeant Tom (Domenick Lombardozzi) interrogates the boys; Paul admits that the theft was his idea, and he convinces Johnny to take part. Irving comes to the station and meets Tom, who reveals they met years ago when Irving fixed his water heater for free. Paul is allowed to go free but is hesitant to leave until Johnny insists Paul let him take the blame. Outside their home in the car, Irving tells Paul that life is unfair, and while he hates that others must suffer, their family must survive and make the most of their own lives without looking backward. Irving says they will not tell Esther about what happened.
A newscast reveals that Ronald Reagan has won the presidential election, and the family is disappointed. Paul sits in his room doing homework and has a fantasy of a conversation with Aaron where Aaron tells him to “never give in to those bastards.” At the school’s Thanksgiving dance, Fred Trump speaks to the students about how they all have the potential to be the country’s future elite leaders. Paul walks out of the school.