The Florida Project opens with the camera three feet off the ground, eye-level with children sitting in the Florida sun, their backs against the pink stucco wall of the decaying motel where they live. The kids conspire to make their way to the second-floor breezeway for a euphoric kiddie spitting contest. They coat a car’s windshield with spitballs.

They’re caught by one of the moms living in the tenement hotel, who scolds them and makes them clean the car with paper towels and Windex. That punishment, intended as an old-fashioned lesson about honesty and responsibility, naturally becomes another opportunity for fun.  All the kids in the motel come around and want to squirt Windex and swab the car. It could be a scene out of The Little Rascals.

The opening scene establishes who this story is about, and through whose eyes it will be told: six-year-old Moonee, portrayed gloriously by the very young actress Brooklyn Prince. The Florida Project is about Moonee’s childhood on the periphery of the American dream and the people who lovingly raise her—her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and their neighbors—a community of low-paid service workers living together in shabby rooms rented by the week. Above all, the film is about Halley’s struggle to protect and preserve her daughter’s childhood. It’s a struggle she eventually loses.

Looming beyond their impoverished Orlando suburb is Disney World, whose environs are served by an army of minimum-wage workers who dwell in cheap rooms like they do. The closest Moonee and Halley get to the Magic Kingdom is taking in the nightly fireworks from a mile away. For the people in their tribe, a Disney day pass is an unthinkable luxury. In this portrait of the wayward homeless, the Mouse Ears become a cruel symbol of the American dream that is out of reach.

Moonee’s days are filled with Florida rainbows and vanilla ice cream cones dripping on hot sidewalks. The children still have the innocence to imagine they’re on safari when they see cows in a nearby field; in their world of Orlando strip malls and garish tourist traps, every day is an adventure. Halley scrapes together rent money by selling perfumes out of a shopping bag to tourists.

Halley is a young single mom and wily street-smart survivor, scamming as she sees necessary. The film often defies us to like her. She’s rude and uncouth, at one point slapping her maxi-pad onto the window of a hotel office to show her rage when the owners raise the room rates.  She spews obscenities, and at one point turns a trick in the hotel room as Moonee hides in the bathtub. Moonee’s theft of the man’s pricey Disney day passes becomes morally ambiguous when we learn that he’s picking up some action while on a Disney vacation with his wife and kids.

We don’t know what circumstances have brought Halley to her present situation. Moonee’s dad never appears, nor does Halley seem to have any family; it’s clear she has no one besides the other hotel residents to support her. The closest thing to family she has is Bobby (Willem Defoe), who manages the tenement hotel where they live like a gentle, benevolent chieftain watches over a village. Although the kids run amok in the complex, he never raises a voice or hand.  When Halley says she’s getting a job, Bobby immediately objects: who’s going to look after Moonee?

Halley’s trick turns up at the hotel demanding the return of his stolen Disney passes.  The man squirms as Bobby informs him that he can have his passes back, but that will require a police theft report—which will mean uncomfortable explanations to his family. The man fumes and leaves, beaten, but the episode will continue to haunt Halley. When she’s condemned for her act of prostitution by another mom in the building, Halley savagely attacks her. Halley’s violent outburst suggests, perhaps, her own tough history of physical abuse. And we might infer that Halley’s fury is a response to the self-loathing she feels for selling herself for money to get by.

What Halley does with that money is important to note.  After paying their rent, she treats Moonee to a dollar-store shopping spree, the little girl ecstatically filling the cart with glittering plastic novelties and other baubles of American throwaway consumer culture.  She takes Moonee to a diner and lets her buy everything she wants—waffles, pancakes, six kinds of pop. It’s an act of excess in defiance of everything else that she can’t provide to Moonee. Halley may be a wounded personality with rough edges, but there’s no question of her devotion to her daughter. And although she can only provide her a low-class lifestyle, we feel that Moonee is well cared for. She has a mom. She is loved. She has a community.

That, ultimately, is the tragedy portrayed in The Florida Project. While the film is certainly a document of the people who clean hotel rooms and wash dishes for wages too low to buy the American dream, it’s the failure of the system to support a mother and child when the travesty is apparent. Halley needs just a few hundred dollars a month to guarantee Moonee has a home. In the end, it’s the trick she turned for rent money that prompts a visit by Child Protection Services. As the agents inspect their trashy room and interview Halley, Moonee flees, weeping for the first time in the story. We sense that Moonee’s childhood is now over.  She had a fighting chance as long as she had her mother by her side. Now we imagine the succession of foster homes she’s headed to, and the lonely and resentful young girl she’s likely to become—the next casualty of the cycle.

It’s a blistering indictment of America’s true religion—the sanctity of wealth—and its contempt for heretics who haven’t made it.  The ill-begotten politics of “welfare reform” demand that mothers work for minimum wage instead of staying home and raising children. It’s an ignorant, myopic, and brutish ideology in America. In a nation that worships affluence and rigs the system against the poor, a few hundred bucks make all the difference for the people in The Florida Project.  It’s a small price to give Moonee a childhood.

Jeb Wyman is the editor of What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers, published by Blue Ear Books.