I should get this out of the way: “Casting JonBenet,” which just premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, will not give you any insight into the 20-year mystery of who killed 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.
In fact, there is not a single image of JonBenet or her family in the movie. And that’s the most fascinating part of this documentary/fiction hybrid.
With true crime being the current craze in Hollywood, the idea of making a movie about one of the most publicized child murders of all time seems obvious. However, director Kitty Green, in her feature directing debut, radically pulls the rug from under the audience by turning the attention away from the case and putting it back on ourselves.
In an inventive mix of documentary and fiction, Green shoots the casting of a fake movie about the JonBenet murder in which she hires actors who live in the region of Colorado where the Ramseys lived. Some of them even know the family. “Casting JonBenet” is then made up of auditions and reenactments of key events like the police news conference after the murder and JonBenet’s parents, John and Patsy, being interviewed by police. We watch a handful of actors portraying the main figures of the case in these moments — yes, even young girls as JonBenet.
But then Green gets her actors to open up on camera about their own views of the case. Many of them voice their reasons for thinking JonBenet’s parents were behind the murder. Others give insight on why they think certain aspects of the case could be plausible. One of the most comedic personalities in the movie is a man cast to play the police chief who turns out to be a sex educator in real life. However, Green has a reason for this casting as the person eventually opens up about why the theory that JonBenet was the victim of sexual abuse before her death could be valid.
The movie is really a study on our own obsessions about the case rather than a search for answers (which many other movies and TV programs have done over the years), and how we use our own past to come to judgments.
Almost everyone in “Casting JonBenet” opens up about their own hardships and uses those to relate to the Ramseys (or vilify them). Essentially, Green is asking her audience to look inward before casting stones.
Now, there will certainly be those who will think what Green has done is disrespectful to the Ramseys and is just using a well-known case to create a story she wants to tell, and that’s valid.
But what I see is a unique take on how we react to a media sensation like an unsolved murder or a missing plane by using our own personal truths, because that’s basically all we have.
“Casting JonBenet” will be available on Netflix later this year.