A dozen little blonde girls in stars and stripes leotards line up on stage. Several middle-aged women in red turtlenecks and men in blue button-down shirts sit down in front of the camera. A group of unnerving young boys chat about their acting history.
Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet finds the only new way to talk about the JonBenet Ramsey case, an unsolved murder that has been endlessly analyzed, theorized and gossiped about for two decades now. The director (also of Ukraine Is Not A Brothel and the short doc that inspired her approach here, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul) speaks only through the actors responding to her casting call in the Ramseys’ home state of Colorado. The casting call is for a reenactment of the crime, but we never see much of that reenactment unfold onscreen.
Instead we mostly see these actors – the potential JonBenets, the Patsys, the Johns, the Burkes, even the police chiefs and Santas and John Mark Karrs – debating their own theories of the case, some of which line up with what we’ve all heard or said over the past twenty years, and some of which are fairly far out. A Patsy blames Patsy. A John defends John. We hear the intricacies of the investigation from men posing as investigators.
But the actors have more to say than merely details about the case, and Casting JonBenet is here to listen. We hear about their struggles as performers, previous roles they’ve had or wanted and lost, painful or successful auditions. A former beauty queen talks about the pageant circuit, a world with which both JonBenet and Patsy were very familiar.
And, eventually, as they start filming re-enactments of that night and the days that followed – Patsy makes a tortured 911 call, John discovers his daughter in the basement – the actors find their way to talking about the past trauma of their own lives. A John was recently diagnosed with cancer. Another woke to find his girlfriend dead in bed with him. A Patsy’s brother was murdered.
Slowly, the thread of Casting JonBenet reveals itself. This is a film that appears to be founded on a gimmick, but that gimmick reveals a conversation of great depth and relevancy. It examines our preoccupation with true crime, the pop theories and casual psychoanalysis to which we feel entitled, the way these cases stay with us for decades, sneak their way into our everyday conversation, our podcasts and news specials and books. And it suggests that the reason for our obsession is that these stories remind us of our own traumas, and they give us an outlet to explore tragedy from a healthy distance.
Casting JonBenet says all of that and, remarkably, still has room to comment on the acting process itself. We see these actors, as they work out their thoughts on the case, their own personal histories, slowly begin to live in their roles. They become the subjects of their own conversation.
It’s a funny movie at times. There are moments that we can’t help but laugh at the melodrama, the same desperate 911 call made five times by five woman. The scene that surprised the biggest laugh out of our audience involved the Burkes: after someone posits whether a 9-year-old would have the strength to inflict those injuries on his sister, the young actors engage in a feat of strength onscreen that’s too unexpected to spoil here. We laugh – until we remember, again and again, that this was a real tragedy that happened to a real family. But there’s no heavy-handed reminder chastising us for our ghoulish obsession with this crime – Casting JonBenet observes but never judges.
In the Q&A, an audience member asked why there were so few scenes with the actresses playing JonBenet, and it’s true – they’re only featured in the first and last scenes of the film. Green answered, simply, that she thought we’d all seen enough of JonBenet. “The poor little girl is everywhere.” Casting JonBenet is shocking and attention-grabbing, but it is never exploitative. Beyond its showy device, or maybe because of it, this is a deeply thoughtful and compassionate film.