Casting JonBenet **** / *****
Directed by: Kitty Green.
I will admit that as a true crime junkie (mainly in Podcast form, but yes, also in terms of docs) there are times when I feel more than a little guilty as you watch as other people’s deaths are trotted out as entertainment – sand become fodder for people to paw over. I don’t like that aspect of it, but I do think that good true crime can both be entertaining and insightful – meaningful even, and should be done – but I definitely have a line that I draw, when I think people are either making light of or sensationalizing a crime. It really shouldn’t happen.
There has perhaps not been any true crime case that has been thought over, sensationalized and exploited more than the murder of JonBenet Ramsey – a six year old beauty queen, found dead in her basement – murdered – and the bizarre investigation that followed, including all sorts of contradictory evidence and facts. Before I even became a true crime junkie, I knew the basic facts of the case, and even though I haven’t really sought out material on this case specifically, enough of what I watch and listen to has covered it that by now, I know more than most, and definitely know too much about it. If there was one case that didn’t need a true crime doc about it – it was JonBenet Ramsey. And that is precisely why Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is such a great doc – it isn’t really a true crime doc about the case at all. It’s about how we all absorb true crime, watch, observe and filter true crime through our own experiences. If you know nothing about JonBenet Ramsey, this isn’t the place the start (perhaps seek out the episodes of the podcasts Generation Why? or True Crime Garage about the case - avoid almost all of the trash TV, especially the garbage from last year on it). It’s something far greater than that.
In the film, director Green heads to Boulder Colorado, and puts out a casting call for local actors to come in and audition for any role associated with the case – mostly, it’s people playing parents John or Patsy Ramsey, although there are a few playing brother Burke, various police officers, the Santa Claus from a recent party some think may be involved in a bizarre conspiracy theory, or the creepy man who confessed the crime when he clearly didn’t do it. There are shots of little girls playing JonBenet – but unlike everyone else, they don’t really talk to the camera – they remain silent, dancing little beauty queens. When the actors arrive, Green explains what she’s doing – not really making a docudrama about the case, as much as a documentary about them, as they prepare to play the roles. Green asks them what they think about the case, who they think these people were. They offer their own theories – most of them fairly straight forward (it was Patsy, it was John, it was Burke, it was someone outside, etc). – and most fascinating, they offer their reasons why they think that’s the case. For the most part, it’s linked to something from their own past. The woman who was abused by her father, thinks it was John – they had the same demeanor of projecting an outward appearance of normalcy. The woman who remembers gets so angry at her son wetting himself that it scared her, thinks it was Patsy. The film then delves even deeper, as it does have these various actors and actresses “play” these characters in some scenes, and what effect that has.
Casting JonBenet then is something different than a true crime doc – which is a relief. We don’t need more talking heads analyzing the same evidence that every other doc has done. This is something different – it becomes a portrait of the captive audience for these stories, and how we filter than information. It is also a performance piece about acting, and how these various actors – none of which you will likely recognize (there was one woman auditioning for Patsy Ramsey that looked familiar). But it’s also a portrait of Boulder, and how small town it can feel, as there are various intersections between the people there, and the Ramsey’s themselves.
That’s a lot to pack into one documentary – but Casting JonBenet pulls it off wonderfully – and in less than 90 minutes. This is a haunting, memorable doc – one that kind of sneaks up on you a little bit. We get lots of true crime docs – some good, some bad – many will fade from memory. You’ll remember Casting JonBenet.