Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has a hard time speaking up, especially when the boys in her class tease her for her long name. She lives in a trailer park in Lemon Tree, California, with her spry and attentive great-grandmother, Gram, and her brother, Owen. While Owen excels in many of his classes, he is physically challenged. One leg is shorter than the other, his head is always tilted, and his voice is perpetually raspy. Owen always keeps a piece of tape on his shirt because it makes him feel safe.
One night without warning, Naomi and Owen’s mother appears at the door. The little family hasn’t heard anything from her in seven years, when she left Owen and Naomi in Gram’s care. Owen and Naomi are excited, but Gram is wary. The children’s mother has changed her name to Skyla. She is in town with her boyfriend, Clive, so he can train as a tattoo artist. While he’s working, she wants to reconnect with her children.
Skyla tries to remove the tape from Owen’s shirt, but Naomi and Gram explain that he likes it there. After Skyla leaves for the evening, Gram and the kids walk over to their neighbor Fabiola’s house to discuss the situation with her and her husband, Bernardo. Fabiola and Bernardo are from the same region in Mexico as the children’s father, and so have a special fondness for the kids.
Skyla showers Naomi with clothing and presents, but doesn’t bring anything for Owen. Owen asks for a bike. When Skyla notices the parent-teacher conferences on the calendar, Gram suggests she go in Gram’s place.
Naomi and Owen dress their best for the conferences, although Owen still covers his shirt and tie with tape. Naomi and Owen sit on the school steps waiting for Skyla, but she doesn’t arrive. Eventually Gram is called to take them home.
Naomi learns that her mother has been a struggling alcoholic for years and that her father wanted custody of the children when they were younger, but was persuaded to let them go.
Naomi confronts Gram with this information. Gram thought Skyla was pulling her life back together to reconnect with the children. When the children were young and living in Mexico with their father, Santiago, their parents argued a lot. Skyla ran away, lived at Gram’s and threatened to take Santiago to court if he ever attempted to make contact with them.
Santiago sends money orders to her twice a year in envelopes without a return address. He works as a fisherman, a nomadic and dangerous job. Gram was concerned that his lifestyle and limited funds would not be able to give Owen the medical care he needs. So she never tried to locate Santiago.
Skyla returns three days later with the new bike Owen asked for. Skyla didn’t go to the parent-teacher conferences because she and Clive were spending time together. Skyla reminds Naomi that Clive’s money has purchased all the gifts they’ve enjoyed and says Naomi ought to thank him when he arrives for Thanksgiving.
The children decorate the trailer for Thanksgiving, including a centerpiece featuring several of Naomi’s soap carvings. Gram’s neighbors also join the Thanksgiving dinner. Over the meal, Skyla learns that Clive has a daughter from a second marriage, and she is around Naomi’s age. They want Naomi to live with them in Las Vegas to keep his daughter company. Skyla calls Owen a cripple in front of everyone. As Skyla and Clive prepare to leave, Naomi runs after them to thank Clive for the gifts and spies alcohol in the back seat of Skyla’s car.
Gram can’t bring Owen to his usual doctor’s appointment, so Skyla offers to take him. The doctors explain that Owen is doing well, but he’s not big enough for the next surgery he needs. Skyla is furious to learn there’s nothing more they can do at the moment to make Owen look or talk more like a normal boy.
Skyla tells Owen that it’s time to do away with his tape habit. Naomi objects. Skyla insists that as their mother, they have to do whatever she says. Clive calls, and Skyla begins packing her things. She instructs Naomi to pack, since she intends to take Naomi with her and Clive to Las Vegas.
When Naomi refuses, Skyla slaps her and threatens to hurt Gram if she doesn’t obey. Naomi begins to comply, but when Skyla leaves the room for a moment, she and Owen run to Fabiola’s house. Gram has the children hide, while she, Fabiola and Bernardo confront Skyla. Skyla eventually leaves but says that she and Clive will be back in a few days to pick up Naomi. She can because Gram has no official claim over the children.
The next day, Naomi and Owen stay home from school while Gram, Fabiola and Bernardo come up with a plan. Gram goes to a lawyer to gain temporary custody over the kids. Then they all go on a road trip to Mexico. They stay with Fabiola’s sister, Flora, while they search for the children’s father.
The adults go to the market to ask whether anyone knows Santiago León. Naomi, Owen and Flora’s grandson call every León in the phone book, hoping to find someone who knows Santiago. Meanwhile, the men of the family argue over a theme for the annual radish carving festival that takes place in their village, now only 12 days away.
Eventually one of the Leóns calls back to say Santiago is a cousin by marriage to Santiago’s aunt Teresa. They finally have a lead. The children are reprimanded for making multiple toll calls without permission. They are punished with a day of yard work, and Gram pays the phone bill.
Great Aunt Teresa explains that unless the roads flood, Santiago will be in town within a few days. Like Naomi, Santiago is a talented carver, and he returns every year for the radish carving festival to represent the León family. He may return earlier for Las Posadas, a Christmas Eve parade that commemorates Mary and Joseph looking for room at the inn.
Naomi and Owen walk with Gram and the others in the parade and participate in the festivities, but do not find Santiago. Bernardo’s cousin Beni is inspired by Naomi’s animal soap figurines. The family bases their theme for the radish carving festival around Naomi’s carvings. The men ask Naomi to help them carve.
The family’s animal carvings win second place at the radish carving festival. When Bernardo’s name is announced, a man approaches the group to congratulate him. He sees Gram and the kids and runs away. Naomi chases him but loses him in the crowd.
When they return to Flora’s, they find the man waiting for them: He’s their father. Santiago was initially surprised and overwhelmed to see his children unexpectedly, but now is overjoyed. He explains that flooding and traffic delayed him and that he’s disappointed that he wasn’t able to represent the León family at the festival. Then he’s proud to learn his daughter participated and praises her lion figurine.
The group spends time together, but Gram and the kids must return to California for a court hearing to decide who will gain custody over the kids. Santiago hopes to be part of his children’s life again, but knows with his dangerous profession, he can’t take care of them on his own. He writes a letter explaining his situation and opinions and sends it back with Gram to give to the judge.
At the hearing, the judge is initially inclined to give custody to Skyla, but gives Naomi the opportunity to speak up. Naomi tells the judge everything, including that Skyla didn’t want Owen because he was disfigured and that she had hit Naomi. The judge gives Gram guardianship since Skyla would want to separate the children.