“Casting JonBenet” is completely different from any of the TV documentaries, “48 Hours” or “Dateline” episodes that have been made dissecting the case of murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey over the past 20 years. 32-year-old Australian director Kitty Green, who admits she’s been fascinated with the Ramsey story since it unfolded in ’96, sought to examine the events and the phenomenon, with a bold, new approach.
Over the course of a year and a half, Green interviewed people from the Ramseys’ hometown of Boulder, Colorado, who believed auditioning for roles as JonBenet, John, Patsy and others for yet another movie being made on the subject. Two elements are never made clear in “Casting JonBenet”: whether this “re-creation” movie was/will ever be made and if the Boulder residents were ever informed that the “re-creation” movie was real or just a way to get them to open-up on camera about the case and their own, personal lives (which they do quite freely).
A handful of dramatized scenes of the events of Dec. 26, 1996 with these local actors playing their parts are included in “Casting JonBenet”. There are also a number of moments of pure, unapologetic (and clearly fictional) staging, including back-to-back scenes in the final few minutes, that make it impossible to call this film a documentary, in the traditional sense. Instead it’s a more of an unscripted, fictionalized documentary. Except when the actors are reading their lines – then it’s scripted. I hope that’s all that was.
Above everything else, “Casting JonBenet” is fascinating. However, it’s also maliciously manipulative. Some of the techniques used by Green and her crew are amazing. But her back and forth style – from stunning personal accounts and admissions from the cast members to watching them struggle trying to – well – act! (a few of the amateur performancers are actually pretty good) – forces us to swing wildly from one end to the other on the believability scale, making watching this film too much of a challenge.
But causing all this confusion may have been the point. Green has intentionally created a piece of bizarre, mysterious cinema, forcing viewers to question everything they just saw, while trying to make sense of it all, in the same way people, for the past 20 years, have been trying to make sense of the killing of the 6-year old beauty queen.
Most of the interviewees state who they believe murdered JonBenet and how it was done. All pure speculation, but it interesting to see how the role they’re playing in the “film” plays a role in their opinions on the case. What’s even more incredible are the personal stories these people tell – intimate, traumatic and devastating details, as they relate how the JonBenet murder has impacted their lives. This is the core of “Casting JonBenet” – and the film’s most (and possibly only) authentic element. Green succeeds in this ultimate goal of getting the folks from this town to pour-out their emotions on camera.
“Casting JonBenet” is often a very uncomfortable experience thanks to Green’s in-your-face direction, the jarring, razor-edge editing of Davis Coombe and the haunting lighting direction from cinematographer Michael Latham. Images will stay with you. Good luck trying to forget the boys auditioning to play JonBenet’s brother, Burke, smashing watermelons with a flashlight (the way some believe he smashed his younger sister’s head). On top of everything else, this film also examines the art of acting in a completely unique way, and the results are both brilliant and eerie.
The struggles to separate fact from fiction held me back from fully appreciating what Green has accomplished. That said, this is one of the most conversation-worthy and technically impressive movies I’ve seen in some time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Casting JonBenet” gets a B.
“Casting JonBenet” debuts this Friday, April 28th, on Netflix. Running Time: 80 min.