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Netflix’s Casting JonBenét finds freedom in a bizarre structural gimmick

It’s not your average true crime documentary

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s Casting JonBenét is the closest you’ll get to a JonBenét Ramsey documentary that doesn’t carry the stench of exploitation and sensationalism. That’s because it’s not really a documentary, and it’s not about JonBenét.

The second feature from 32-year-old Australian director Kitty Green, the film is more like a hybrid between a piece of community theater and a magical realist documentary like Alma Har'el’s Bombay Beach. For Casting JonBenét, the filmmakers auditioned 200 people in Boulder, Colorado, for roles in an imaginary film about the 1996 murder of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey. They then reassembled the famous story using their test footage and in-costume interviews. All of the traditional trappings of a documentary are absent — there’s no voice-over, archival footage, context cards, or experts, and the footage is intercut with some over-the-top cinematic set pieces, including a JonBenét in angels’ wings waltzing down an empty hall. The goal, Green told The Verge, was to make “more of a portrait of a community than another whodunnit true crime special.”

Photo: Netflix

Casting JonBenét is far from the first documentary to be interested in portraiture of a community. Nor is it the first to use the conceit of casting the role of a famous murder victim. Robert Greene’s 2016 documentary Kate Plays Christine, was about an actress preparing to play Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on live TV in 1974. Their concerns are different — Kate Plays Christine is about a mostly forgotten grisly death, and focuses its attention on the moral quandaries of actors portraying the victims of real-life tragedies — but we’ve seen it before. Kitty Green’s 2015 short film The Face Of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, used the same structure, and she says the idea for a feature-length film using the casting conceit came before the idea for it to be a JonBenét movie.

In any case, the title for this new project is a misnomer. Casting the fictional part of JonBenét takes up a tiny fraction of the runtime, as the young girls who weren’t alive in 1996 (and are currently six years old) don’t really have that much to contribute to the dissection of how Ramsey’s death shaped their community. The film shies away from the moral conundrum of them being there at all, and it feels like their main purpose there is to create the arresting image for the posters.

The focal point is actually the pack of women lining up to play Patsy, JonBenét’s mother, and the theories they give about whether or not she murdered her daughter. Green, when asked about these moments, said they’re among her favorite. “The subject matter I love to explore is women and their representation in the media… we were asking women about their connection to Patsy Ramsay and their views on her. It becomes a central part of the film, the way different people view this woman.”

One would-be-Patsy all but screams at the camera as she recalls her frustration with the case’s news coverage. One piece that she remembers insinuated Patsy may have been psychotically jealous of her young, beautiful child, given that she herself was approaching her 40th birthday and the end of her “glory days.” Immediately after, another woman — who had previously explained how the unsolved murder of her own brother helps her sympathize with the Ramsey family’s public-facing iciness — cooly puts forward that she thinks the jealousy theory might be true.

Green said the community was fully on board with the project when she made it clear that she wasn’t making another “trashy sensationalist JonBenét Ramsey TV special.” She described it to the cast of 200 as something more like a group therapy session: “These people from the community, they’ve been living in the shadow of this for 20 years, and they haven’t been able to escape it. I think for a lot of them it was quite cathartic to talk about the case, what it meant to them, how they connected to it, their interpretations of it.”

The casting call conceit is plainly less altruistic than Green claims — there’s a sense that the team is letting the citizens of Boulder do their dirty work for them, by prying out their most bizarre theories on the case and then cutting away any context. In interviews, Green is frank about her personal fascination with the case and the reasoning behind the structural conceit, and told The Verge: “I grew up watching The Brady Bunch and all these idyllic shows about picture-perfect families, and here was this crime that ripped one of those families apart. It made no sense to me, I was so confused by it. I never let go of that fascination.” But that’s not in the film, and watching it cold, you can spend as much time wondering about what it is, who’s making it, and why, as about whether you’re getting anything out of what’s there on the screen.

It’s also hard not to feel like the film is going way out of its way to get to some fairly obvious human truths. People love gossip because we’re deeply empathetic creatures. That’s a fact known to science and recognized by anyone who pays attention to popular culture or ever attended high school. If Green just wanted to see how a community responds to living in the shadow of a heinous crime and a tabloid circus for 20 years, there would have been simpler ways to ask it. But she does get some fascinating stuff out of the people she interviews. The image of a woman putting on an approximation of Patsy Ramsey’s clothes (down to the specific pearls and earrings, which she tracked down in thrift stores) just before she dives into her attempt at pulling Patsy Ramsey’s psyche apart, for example is startling. In costume, it’s impossible to hide her fascination with the case.

The people in Boulder didn’t just deal with paparazzi and journalists and repetitive, circular gossip and probing questions. They also dealt with fear, and basic assumptions about the fabric of their world that were shredded overnight by one of the strangest murder cases in living memory. They also accrued a claim to authority, by way of proximity, and you can see some of the “actors” toggling between genuine empathy and the treat of being asked unsavory questions in front of a camera.

It’s fitting that Casting JonBenét is on Netflix, where true crime series like Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox have been a boon for business. The platform isn’t all about private viewing or guilty indulgence, but that’s a part of the culture around laptop screen TV and binge-watching. And Green is fully aware that she has a better chance of getting her movie seen in a streaming context. “I think people actually watch documentaries on Netflix,” she points out. “We’ll get people who wouldn’t normally go to the theater to see a documentary.” They’ll also get people who have fed the Netflix algorithm an interest in unsolved murder cases, something millions of us have done.

Green says the film is interested in understanding why JonBenét is still on tabloid covers 20 years after her death, and why people (including herself and her cast) are so taken in by true crime sagas. As explanation she lands on the bizarre details of the case, noting that it’s “weird, weirder than Twin Peaks” and empathy — “I think all of us in some way can bring our own emotional baggage to a story like this.” Both are probably true, though her film is at its finest when it’s doing something else. The gimmick of putting dozens of people into the Ramsey’s clothes makes space for at least one element in the story that Green might not have been able to get at otherwise — the sick thrill of literally trying someone else’s nightmare on for size.