Willa and Caroline are playing hide and seek at Caroline's house. As Willa runs through the house looking for a place to hide we see that Caroline's house is very upscale. It's three stories with a swimming pool and expensive furniture. Robbie is hiding in a tree across the street watching his sister. He is supposed to pick up Willa but he waits until after the Millerton's let Willa eat dinner with them before he knocks on the door.
Bill takes Willa to the clinic because her coughing and headaches are getting worse. Bill wants to know what's wrong with her but Michael refuses to tell him anything until the results of the tests come back.
While grocery shopping, the kids scarf down as many free samples as they can until the employee tells them that the samples are just incentives for people to buy. Robbie pretends he's going to buy some but then leaves them on a shelf when he walks away. When they check out Bill doesn't have enough money to pay for all the groceries so he's forced to put some back.
At this point Robbie starts skipping school to find ways to earn money. At first he helps people bring their groceries to their car and then he walks through the park looking for cans and bottles to recycle. Eventually he comes across a mechanic named Gus whom he develops a friendship with.
At Caroline's house while playing make-believe, Willa steals some food from the Millerton's pantry and hides it in her school bag. Caroline's mother notices but doesn't confront her about it because she doesn't know what to say. Feeling bad, however, she gives Willa a bag of apples when she's about to leave to take home with her.
Bill has to work a double shift at the fast food restaurant so he's not able to bring Willa to her doctor's appointment. Michael meets Bill at work to give him an update on Willa. He says that Willa's immune system is weak because she's not getting enough iron. He tells Bill that Willa is now at the age when any period of time without adequate nutrition can have long lasting implications that she can't make up for.
Bill goes for a job interview for a busboy at a fancy restaurant. The manager hires him and says he can start on Monday. He's so happy that he quits his job at the fast food restaurant and tells Willa she can invite Caroline over for dinner. However, before he's able to start his new job he finds out that the owner replaced him with his nephew. Bill is pissed off now because he's unemployed and he spent a bunch of money for clothes that he doesn't need anymore. At home Caroline witnesses Bill fly into a rage throwing furniture. When Michael comes to pick her up he hears about Bill's latest string of bad luck and invites him over for dinner on Sunday. Bill refuses and says, "I can't digest charity food."
The next day Bill finds a job at a car wash through a temp agency. He comes home to a house with no food and changes his mind about the barbecue at the Millerton's. It turns out to be a little awkward because Caroline's grandparents and the Januson's don't have anything in common. Willa and Caroline are the only two people who seem to be perfectly comfortable with each other. Bill confides in Michael that before coming there his family hadn't eaten in more than a day.
That night, Willa's health starts getting much worse. She cries and coughs all night. The only thing that Bill can do to make her feel better is to sing her a lullaby.
Finally realizing he has no choice, he breaks down and for the first time goes to apply for food stamps. He spends all day at the "North Seattle Food Bank" being shuffled from one line to another until they tell him that the earliest he can receive assistance will be in 5 days.
At the auto shop, Gus tells Robbie that the car they've been trying to fix is almost done except that it needs a new carburetor. Robbie runs home to get some money so he can buy it. He takes the money Bill was saving for rent that he had kept hidden. While there he gets caught by his father, and they have another big fight. Bill finds out that Robbie has been skipping school for 3 weeks but he doesn't find out about the money. Robbie tells him, "a man's not a man unless he pulls his weight" and reminds Bill about something that he said earlier, that he is "just another mouth to feed". He tells Robbie to go back to school but instead Robbie buys the part that he needs, and takes it to Gus. The next day she tells him that she found a buyer willing to pay $1,855 for the car and that she's willing to split it with him because of all the help that he has given her.
Bill happens to walk by a construction site and feeling desperate he joins in and starts working. Even though he wasn't hired, they let him work because they need the help. By the end of the day the supervisor decides to hire him after seeing what a hard worker he is.
Meanwhile, Robbie goes to see Gus and finds that the car isn't there. Unfortunately she wasn't able to sell it. Angela, a girl who works with her, borrowed the car the night before to see her boyfriend and ended up in a car accident. Gus tries to explain to him that it's not the end of the world, but she doesn't know the situation that he is in.
When he gets home Willa tries to console him seeing that he's very upset. Robbie just ignores her, so she goes outside. Thinking that there is no more hope, Robbie trashes the time capsule that he's been making and then writes on the bathroom mirror, "one less mouth to feed". He steps into the shower, takes off his belt and ties it to the showerhead.
When Bill returns home he finds Willa waiting for him on the outside steps. He is excited to tell her and Robbie about his new job as a construction worker. They go inside to find Robbie passed out in the bathtub. The showerhead had broken.
At the hospital Robbie wakes up and confesses to his father about stealing the money. Bill is just happy to see that Robbie will be alright. Later, we see Willa and Caroline playing in a park. Caroline notices that Willa is sad but tries to pretend like nothing is wrong. Playfully, she starts tossing flower petals at Willa but she is too tired to play along.
The credits end with the following caption:Bill Januson (Beau Bridges) - Widower and father of two children. A year ago he had a house and a good job. He was making $16/hr working on an assembly weld line at a GM auto plant. After working there for 17 years a robot took over his job. Bill's wife died of cancer seven months ago. He calls himself a jack of all trades although he has no high school diploma. He thinks that what's wrong with this country is that no one wants to work for a living.
Willa Januson (Jena Malone) - Willa is Bill's young daughter. As the movie progresses her health deteriorates due to malnutrition.
Robbie Januson (Shelton Dane) - Willa's 11-year-old brother. He is always picking on his little sister good-naturedly to toughen her up. He is the kind of kid who is into the Silver Surfer and who wants to create a time capsule for the future. Robbie is very mature and responsible for his age. He is always trying to give his father advice. For example, he suggests his father learn about cyberspace to help him get a better job and he says they should get a solar cell to save money on electricity.
Caroline Millerton (Allegra Denton) - Willa's best friend and Dr. Millerton's daughter.
Dr. Michael Millerton (Bruce Davison) - Doctor and father of Caroline. He first meets Willa when she comes to play with Caroline. He later develops a friendship with Bill when he brings Willa to the clinic. He tries his best to help Bill by trying to find him a job or offering to loan him money.
Dee Millerton (Alice Krige) - Dr. Millerton's wife. She is a very generous person. She is the kind of person who is willing to invite Willa over every day for every meal.
Gus (Frances McDormand) - A mechanic that Robbie meets one day while skipping school. After spending some time together they enter into a kind of partnership with each other to fix an old car so they can sell it. She tells Robbie, "A man's not a man unless he pulls his weight."
Vincent (Jeff Bridges) - Another surgeon who works with Michael. He also works three days a week at the community clinic. One day Michael loses a bet with him over a baseball stat and has to cover his shift at the clinic.
The film was shot in Toronto. It was co-produced by the End Hunger Network, an organization that dedicates itself to fighting hunger.
Hidden in America was nominated for 9 awards altogether in 1997-1998.