There are those in the upper echelons who can afford to inform their realities with their imaginations; there are also swaths of Americans who can at least afford to fiddle about with dreams, stranded in the ontological oblivion between fiction and fact; and then there’s the growing penury class, whose dreams render them no escape and, sometimes, make them further indebted to the state. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has said that “when film is not a document, it is a dream.” But The Florida Project somehow manages to be both, serving as a fictive documentary of a feasible reality and a nightmare painted as reverie.
The film opens with a still shot of a young girl, Moonee (played by Brooklynn Prince), and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) sitting idly as if also waiting for the movie to start. Director Sean Baker establishes an aesthetic of tinted pink. The world Moonee and her friends run through is a coastal Candyland in which the colors of buildings, even when faded, are deeply saturated and the surrounding foliage a hyperreal green. The setting is so plastic and fantastical that the events that happen throughout seem all the more bleak. When we learn that these children are poor, that they live in motels only a hop-skip-jump away from Disney World, that the protagonist’s mother is barely in her twenties, that they’re much too vulnerable to sexual predators and depraved violence, we are driven into a much more adult world filtered through the eyes of babes.
The Florida Project follows Moonee and her friends as they gallivant through the motel complexes in which they live. They beg customers at an ice-cream stand for enough for one cone to share, shut off the power in Moonee’s motel, and even manage to accidentally burn down a dilapidated building in a scene that reminded me of Moonlight’s Chiron hiding in an abandoned apartment. But rather than cautiously accepting the guidance of a stranger in the rubble, these children approach the house with glee, without fear.
The film doesn’t paint these children as malevolent, just looking for fun in a world that deprives them of it. Some critics have described the film as having no plot, but I disagree. There is little account of the forces dominating Moonee’s life, so for a long time the dream remains uninterrupted as the drama unfolds through implication. Much of her mother’s tragedies remain in the periphery so that Moonee doesn’t notice them, until she does: A strange man will stumble upon her bathing while searching for the bathroom, her mother will throw their leftovers on the ground in anger after a seemingly fun meal, police officers will show up at their doorstep trying to take Moonee away. This is where the dream simply ends rather than turn into a nightmare, because nightmares are populated by giant spiders and evil clowns rather than an all-too-quotidian domestic intervention by the state.
Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is introduced as a woman on her last legs. She’d been fired from a strip club; she loses her best friend; and aside from her unemployment checks, her only source of income is selling cheap perfumes to Disney World guests to make rent. Towards the latter half of the film, however, she’s caught by a security guard and loses her product during a row in the parking lot. It’s at this point when the film takes a turn towards the plausible: Halley has Moonee take photos of her in a bikini in order to use them as advertising on Backpage, a website used to advertise sexual services, and this leads to her downfall.
This isn’t Baker’s first film chronicling the lives of sex workers: His critically acclaimed first film, Tangerine, from 2015, followed two young friends, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), on the night of a revenge tale during Christmas in Hollywood. The film was deemed notable for centering Black transgender women as its protagonists without the fetishistic gaze so common in these narratives. This theme persisted throughout the next few years: New directors responded to late capitalism by showcasing the tragic indignities marginal Americans fall victim to underneath this nightmarish symbiosis of corporate-controlled government and omnipresent bureaucracy. These directors—Baker, Jenkins, the Safdies—attempt to reconcile with the “broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like,” as described by David Graeber in a 2012 essay for the Baffler:
As someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I remember calculating that I would be thirty-nine in the magic year 2000 and wondering what the world would be like. Did I expect I would be living in such a world of wonders? Of course. Everyone did. Do I feel cheated now? It seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.
The Florida Project and the films like it—Tangerine, Moonlight, and Good Time—center characters ranging from generations Y to Z, all brought up in a culture of aspiration coupled with crumbling economic infrastructure. The older set appear disillusioned throughout each film, and their dreams have become much more grounded: Halley wants a regular job; Connie, the small-time thief of Good Time, played by Robert Pattinson, wants to keep his brother. This generation’s dreams were built off the foundations of a liberal meritocracy declaring that you can do anything that you put your mind to. But Sin-Dee, Connie, Chiron, and Halley wind up in their unfortunate situations not because of what they do but because of who they are. Their identities—those derived from race and/or class—become active forces in their lives, and we as viewers are made privy to how little control they’ve had about how their lives have formed around them. Tangerine, for example, only follows Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s misadventures on Christmas day, but it’s enough to serve as a microcosm for their little economic security due to being Black and transgender. They latch onto whatever provides stability in their lives, whether it be a cheating boyfriend or a shot at fame.
The children in The Florida Project, meanwhile, retain the wonder that protects them from their situations. Though Moonee and her friends do express slivers of their hopes and dreams, they keep their eyes down toward the grass, whereas children from wealthier backgrounds may look to the sky.
Rather than postponing the hyperconsumerist dystopia to a few years down the line (as in Blade Runner) or arguing that technocratic utopia is right under our noses if we just worked hard and believed in ourselves (as Tomorrowland does), Baker grapples with the loss of this 20th century dream by distilling it through our reality, via children who’ve ceased to dream and started making do with what’s right in front of them.
This New Proletarian Cinema serves as a farewell to dreams the way the old Proletarian Cinema of post-WWI Germany served as, as described by Lotte H. Eisner, “a collapse of the imperial dream.” Moonee appears too content to dream in this life she’s always known; while in the old house, she admits to her new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) that she wants a home all to her mother and herself, but does so with the insouciant tone of play, as if dreams are to be dabbled with rather than taken seriously. Alexandra meanwhile spends all of Tangerine advertising her show to friends, clients, and passersby on Hollywood streets, all while pressing her friend Sin-Dee to attend, only to perform to an emptying bar.
The Florida Project ends on an even more funereal note: Moonee is taken away from Halley by Child Protective Services and so, rather than lose her mother, she runs away to Jancey, who grabs her hand and leads her to hide in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. By the end, Moonee has retreated into a dream to escape her reality. Halley is told by CPS that after they investigate the sex-work rumors, she may be given back custody of Moonee, but it’s clear to Halley, Moonee, and the audience that, after the preceding events throughout the whole film, they may never see each other again. These films showcase the difference between nightmares and realities: Nightmares connote the potential to wake up, whereas realities may never end.