Cara Jones got married in an Olympic stadium alongside thousands of other grooms in suits and brides in wedding dresses, and that mass ritual — presided over by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the self-appointed “True Father” of his own Unification Church — is exactly what Jones had imagined for herself ever since she was a little girl. And while that approach might have taken the stress out of wedding planning, it came with some unique challenges of its own: Jones wasn’t allowed to meet her husband until a month before the ceremony, when Moon himself assigned the couple to each other by pulling their photos from a stack of 8x10s; also, Jones had never been free to consider marrying someone for love, and not as part of one man’s grandiose scheme to “make the whole world a family” and reap millions of dollars along the way.
Jones grew up in the Unification Church (whose members are often referred to as “Moonies”), and she didn’t leave it all behind until she was well into her 20s. Her parents are still members — her siblings are not. They’re still a family. Needless to say, the process of disentangling herself from this part of her personal history has not been easy for her, and there’s a reason why the intimate documentary she’s made about that fraught, ongoing process is far more tempered and bittersweet than most other films about “cults” and their clutches. Here, the cult was literally her own mom and dad.
“Blessed Child” doesn’t really dig into the story of how she left the Unification Church, as the film opts against a straightforward personal history in favor of a more kaleidoscopic approach that allows Jones to present her life as a work in progress. Her movie feels much the same way. It skitters through the years, and from one focus to another, with the ramshackle urgency of a therapy session; a scene where Jones injects herself with fertility drugs in the present day is shortly followed by a crash course on the Moonies and on-the-street interviews with ex-members who seldom show up again.
The very first shots find Jones putting on her makeup as she prepares to tell her story at The Moth and asks her cameraman — who we later find out is also her (very endearing) brother — some basic directing questions that undermine our faith in the film to come. There’s a bit too much honesty in that (“Blessed Child” is Jones’ debut feature, and its darts-at-the-wall structure often suggests as much), but that unabashed messiness is also the movie’s greatest strength: This isn’t a black-and-white tale of religious indoctrination, and Jones immediately disabuses us from assigning blame. To see how uncertain she is about her own healing process is to recognize that we don’t have the right to define it for her.
Jones’ parents naturally emerge as major figures in this story, even if the filmmaker — like so many of us — struggles to envision who they were before she was born. One shot of her dad making a breakfast smoothie in his modest Hawaii home is all it takes to demystify the life of a Moonie, and her mom radiates a similar feeling of measured calm. We learn that Mr. Jones has always been considered the family Buddha; no one could get mad at someone with such a sweet demeanor, even as his constant search for spiritual contentment prevented the family from settling into the middle-class ideal they seemed to typify from the outside. Jones’ mom seems less dedicated to the Church, but she harbors a darkness that’s too painful for the filmmaker to broach for more than a few seconds. The candid, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe that Jones so clearly shares with her siblings is gone whenever she visits with mom and dad, replaced instead by a fragile layer of wet ice that nobody wants to fall through. “Even though I’m a 42-year-old woman, I’m still afraid of disappointing my parents,” Jones confesses to the camera.
She’s also afraid of reckoning with the ways that her parents might have disappointed her. While the film never discourages us from rolling our eyes at Moon’s charlatan behavior, or the mass weddings for which he became famous, “Blessed Child” has no interest in throwing the Unification Church under the bus. Unconventional as the Church’s practices may have been, most of Moon’s teachings didn’t stray too far afield from typical Christian doctrine. You just to believe that Jesus came to Moon when he was 15 and told him to carry out the work of Christ by parenting the entire human population.
And sure, why not? As one ex-Moonie puts it: “All people who get caught up in mass religions are crazy — read Revelations, it’s crazier than ‘Harry Potter!’” Besides, these were just the facts of life that Jones was taught at a child, and there’s no use gawking at how absurd they might sound to her as an adult. The movie doesn’t ignore that Moon committed tax fraud, or was just a profiteer in a prophet’s clothing, but that stuff just isn’t especially relevant to Jones’ residual conflict.
The one piece of Moonie theology that still matters to her is the idea that making the world into a single family required Moon’s disciples to sacrifice the families they already had. But how do you heal the world by harming the people for whom you’re directly responsible? It’s a direct contradiction that Jones’ parents have never attempted to reconcile, and the trauma that resulted from that friction is most clearly expressed through Jones’ cameraman brother Bow, who to this day is still tortured by the homosexuality that several long church retreats once failed to “cure.” Jones and her siblings share a clear and completely understandable resentment over the realization that it was easier for their parents to turn their backs on the family than it will ever be for their family to turn their backs on them.
The more directly that “Blessed Child” confronts that idea, the better the film leverages and transcends its bizarre context in order to get at the human element that holds all families together — nuclear or religious. The film’s various asides (such as Jones’ interviews with current Moonies about to participate in their own mass weddings) are all tender and engrossing in their own ways, but the documentary fails to put its various elements in dialogue with one another. It spreads itself too wide and too shallow, and leaves us wishing that we might have seen more of the journey that has come to define Jones’ adult life: The path to starting a family of her own.
“Blessed Child” premiered at DOC NYC 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.