The death of six-year-old Denver beauty queen JonBenet Ramsay is one of the greatest unsolved crimes. Some people consider the O.J. Simpson trial “their” crime story, but JonBenet Ramsay is mine. Only two years older than Ramsay and yet at the age of eight her death was inescapable to me. The media covered her death for years, and in that time I consumed books and interviews about a girl I didn’t know and never would. It’s this intangible lure that makes elements of Kitty Green’s quasi-documentary Casting JonBenet so fascinating and frustrating. Interested in detailing the case in the court of public opinion, as well as playing into our “making a murderer” mentality, Casting JonBenet is performance art masquerading as crime drama.
A group of local Denver residents audition for a role in a JonBenet Ramsay biopic while simultaneously discussing their thoughts on the child beauty queen’s murder.
“Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsay,” a little girl in a star-spangled costume asks the camera. It’s a question that’s haunted people for over two decades. Green’s documentary approach is to use the biopic conceit and extrapolate it, creating a movie within a movie that’s as much about how the media perpetuates our interest in the crime as it is about the crime itself.
As each actor reads their lines the audience is left to deduce whether their performances are good, and whether the tone they’re giving off mimics our own perceptions of the Ramsays. The various Patsy’s range from cold to terrified; the John’s stoic, upset or duplicitous. In a way Green’s work is almost Bergman-esque, forcing the audience to confront the nature of persona and how we judge people based on looks and demeanor. As the interviews get progressively more intimate the actors break down barriers. What starts as polite theories on the case opens up to a woman disclosing her molestation at the hands of presumably nice family friends, or a man declaring his son committed a minor crime and thus, like he presumes John Ramsay did, he’d do anything to protect his child.
To add to this Green presents the various misconceptions that people, in general, have regarding how crimes are depicted to the masses. The various men interviewed see John Ramsay as a symbol of the American Dream. “I thought he had it all,” one says. The men generally agree that John Ramsay couldn’t have done it, though their logic is never explicated. Several of the women call Patsy vain, desperate to relive her glory days, and totally did it. There’s a conceit that the film wants to stay neutral but based on the imbalance between which actors are interviewed the most it’s hard not to believe Green has her mind made up about who killed JonBenet. One woman exasperatedly says “talk about putting women in a box” when discussing the assumptions about Patsy Ramsay’s complicity, one of the few moments where gender and crime are explored.
When the film isn’t interviewing its subjects about the case the actors are reenacting moments from the crime itself. Some of the actors are stronger than others and they present interesting responses to grief and panic, but the entire looks is akin to an Unsolved Mysteries reenactment. The various little boys auditioning to play Burke Ramsay tend to range between varying levels of creepy or demonic, though it’s unintentionally funny watching them go to town on a watermelon with a flashlight. The actors auditioning for John and Patsy are the primary focus, and brief interviews with men playing Santa Claus, the coroner and police officers are brief asides meant to get this as close to 90 minutes as possible.
Despite being called Casting JonBenet, the title character is barely mentioned, something that stems all the way back to the murder itself. The various little girls playing JonBenet are all cute, but there’s never any attempt to get their thoughts on the crime. It’d be interesting to ask them how they feel about playing a child who’s dead, or interview their parents about why they’d let their daughters audition to play JonBenet Ramsay. Instead Casting JonBenet has people rehashing info we’ve already heard in countless Dateline specials. If the point is that everyone fancies themselves a detective, that’s fine, but it doesn’t make for an 80-minute sit. This could have been a 60-minute short film and would have felt tighter.
Casting JonBenet feels like someone gathered all their true crime friends in one room to discuss theories and then do a mock trial/live-action role-play. It’s fun on the page and to the people involved, but it’s not something everyone looking for someone new needs to see.