Casting JonBenet is a film that requires you to know this unsolved murder case but also leave your expectations at the door. In the 20 years that have passed since the murder of the child beauty queen, JonBenet Ramsey there have been all manner of documentary exposés and coverage of this crime. Yet Casting JonBenet comes from a very different place, by employing an experimental and avant-garde style to create a piece of art that straddles the lines between the complex and the thoughtful as well as moments that are exploitative and in poor taste.
This ambitious film is directed by Australia’s very own Kitty Green. Here, Green adopts a similar approach to the one she utilised in her short film, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. In Casting JonBenet she rounds up a series of actors who are from Ramsey’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado and then films them auditioning for their parts in the closing scenes of this film. The audience watches amateur and semi-professional actors vying for the roles of the Ramsey family (including parents Patsy and John, JonBenet and her brother, Burke) as well as the local police chief, a paedophile and a “Santa Claus.” These characters all played a role in either the events surrounding the murder or the resulting conspiracy theories. The actors play multiple roles, initially appearing as themselves in the auditions and later on in re-enactments of the possible events surrounding the crime.
This documentary is not a traditional one insofar as it doesn’t relay facts, use archive footage or interview “experts.” Instead the aspiring actors/residents of Boulder are quizzed about their own theories with respect to the case. The film will often see an actor completely convinced that a certain person(s) are the perpetrator(s) but then the next scene will show another actor completely contradicting what the previously person said. This all amounts to a rather absurdist feel and a rich tapestry where all of the major theories i.e. that the police were somehow complicit in the crime and/or that the parents or brother are the killers or that it was an intruder, a paedophile, an entire paedophile ring, a foreign faction or even a man dressed as Santa who actually did it. No stone appears unturned, with one strange woman even believing that the devil is somehow involved on account of the number of sixes related to the case (JonBenet was 6 when her dead body was discovered on 26 December 1996).
The tone of this film is very uneven and varied. In some scenes you see some of the actors making tenuous links between their own life experiences and that of the Ramsey family, while there are other individuals who actually knew the people involved. Some of the actors use this space as a confessional or a therapy session- one woman admits that her brother was murdered while another gentleman uses his 15 minutes of fame to describe his work in the sex industry in rather graphic detail. This throws up a lot of questions about the motivations, ethics and morality of Kitty Green. Should this tragic murder even be the subject of such a film in the first place? Is it appropriate to have some flippant and throwaway scenes in a story where a beautiful, young girl has died? Is this whole thing an exercise in exploitation (of the Ramsey family and the actors from Boulder?)
Casting JonBenet was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and in some ways it’s easy to see why. This film breaks the mould by depicting a highly sensationalised and dark crime that has been subjected to years of speculation, theories and innuendo but also manages to find a new light to shed on it all. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of different elements, from the talking head interviews of the actors to the gripping and dramatic re-enactments of all of the different scenarios that are related to this case. At its core Casting JonBenet is a thoughtful look at society’s insatiability for true crime stories and our own assumptions that we have a right to judge and form opinions from afar. Casting JonBenet throws up a lot of questions but its main problem is that it is also complicit in the very behaviours it is observing/documenting. In the end, it is simply best to sit back and draw your own conclusions about everything.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE) for ambition and originality and ONE STAR (OUT OF FIVE) for the questionable and sometimes exploitative nature of the proceedings.
Casting JonBenet is available from 28th April exclusively on Netflix.