Available to view on Netflix beginning April 28, Kitty Green’s challenging, fascinating, and unnerving documentary feature “Casting JonBenet” is one of the best films of the year.
Ostensibly about the ongoing fascination and morbid curiosity surrounding the 1996 murder case referenced in the film’s title, Green’s conceit is to populate her study with actors -- almost entirely locals and wannabes from the areas surrounding the Ramsey family’s Boulder, Colorado home -- auditioning for roles in what appears to be another fictionalized, made-for-TV true-crime drama.
Green, however, is more ambitious and more expansive than the instantly lurid associations conjured by the tabloid-fuel topic would suggest.
It turns out that the taped audition interviews are the main event for the show business hopefuls, who candidly talk about their own difficult personal experiences with a degree of openness that soon alters our assumptions about the twisted public “ownership” of various scandals, felonies, and transgressions.
In other words, it can be thoughtlessly, effortlessly easy for any of us to speculate about the details of a case when that information is treated like entertainment.
Green’s subjects represent the entire range of opinion regarding possible culprits in the unsolved killing, but the filmmaker miraculously succeeds in humanizing JonBenet’s death via the disclosures made by this cohort of strangers.
“Casting JonBenet” says much about the frustrations of truth-seeking, and the tremendous editing by Davis Coombe shrewdly juxtaposes statements of auditionees convinced of a given suspect’s guilt against the sincere beliefs of competitors equally convinced of that same suspect’s innocence.
Some of those seeking to play one of the family members (Patsy Ramsey, John Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, and JonBenet Ramsey) or one of the other faces (the police chief, Santa Claus, or false confessor John Mark Karr) affiliated with the sprawling investigation convey self-delusion bordering the ridiculous, and Green does not shy from comic asides.
Green used the same unusual approach to nonfiction exploration in her 2015 short “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,” and considering the success of “Casting JonBenet,” one imagines that the filmmaker could log plenty of mileage with the device as applied to other cultural/pop-cultural figures.
The application of inventive storytelling techniques in the realm of the documentary aligns “Casting JonBenet” with an entire range of titles that experiment to varying degrees with the boundaries of the form (possibly inviting re-visits of mind-blowing stuff like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” “My Winnipeg,” “The Arbor,” “The Act of Killing,” “Tower,” and so on).
The absence of closure to the JonBenet tragedy, driven by a number of the crime’s circumstances and features, continues to inspire a cycle of books, interviews, defamation lawsuits, and television and film productions. And even though many salacious aspects are revisited by Green through the people seeking parts in her film, from the unusually lengthy ransom note and oddly specific monetary demands to the sexualization of preteen beauty pageant contestants, the filmmaker is not interested in constructing another conventional account of the Ramsey saga.
It is impossible to argue that Green has closed the book on JonBenet. More likely, she has reclaimed some small bit of compassion from the remnants of what disappeared following two decades of wild speculation and unqualified judgments.
by Sabrina Hornung
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