It takes a lot of skill and heart to make a captivating film without the use of the “get them in trouble, get them out of trouble, and always by the skin of their teeth” formula. But once in awhile such a film comes along; “The Station Agent” and “Winter’s Bone” come to mind.
In films like this we see a kind of truth that we do not see in the kind of fiction James Joyce called pornography. He identified pornography as one-sided and so essentially a character is a white hat or a black hat, like in a romance novel, one character has a depth of sincerity which evenutally gets the girl and the other is revealed to be a villain. The writer makes you like somebody by giving him or her all the qualities preferred by the society, or makes you dislike them by giving them the opposing qualities. In either case they are not real people, but proxies promoting the cultural values, much like those Chinese stage plays fifty years ago in which the characters represented communism and capitalism. They are essentially political propaganda.
Joyce distinguished pornography from real art, which creates a moment of aesthetic arrest. I think Moonlight achieves this standard, and is in contrast with most Hollywood films, which don’t find moving to a more mature level through a series of transforming events grounded in relationship quite exciting enough. Moonlight does not need all the devices and action sequences to hold the attention of the audience. It holds the attention as does a time lapse sequence of a caterpillar moving through a chrysalis. The transformation is remarkable and yet logical. It’s the best picture.