Netflix’s latest documentary doesn’t attempt to solve the 20-year-old murder of child pageant star JonBenét Ramsey, but that doesn’t mean you won’t.
Casting JonBenét isn’t a traditional documentary and is much more meta in its approach. The film features very few title cards and no omniscient narrations to direct the sequence of events. The audience is instead left to a chorus of amateur actors auditioning, primarily, for the roles of the Ramsey family.
These actors are seemingly unaware of director Kitty Green’s true intentions with their audition tapes, but all are eager to be a part of the production. They’re also all excited to share their own conspiracy theories as to who actually killed JonBenét.
For a bit of background, JonBenét Ramsey was six-year-old beauty queen who was brutally murdered in her family’s home in Boulder, CO on Christmas Eve in 1996. Her body was found in the basement of her home by her parents John and Patsy Ramsey eight hours after finding a three-page ransom note. The case has never been solved, but speculation and coverage of the case focussed on the family and authority’s role in the murder.
The story has been told in countless ways over the last two decades, but Casting JonBenét seems less interested in uncovering new truths. The Netflix documentary seems much more focused on analyzing the role society plays in the exploitation of these types of high profile cases.
JonBenét’s story is mainly told through the audition tapes of amateur actors from the Boulder, CO area- all of whom remember the media frenzy that followed. One by one we are introduced to the “characters” of the Ramsey family through similarly dressed actors who have obviously done the research into the roles.
Although each actor begins by introducing themselves, their names are quickly forgotten and they essentially become various What-If versions of the characters they are auditioning for.
The Johns, most wearing dark gray button ups, discuss the successes of Mr. Ramsey professionally.
The Patsys, most wearing red turtlenecks, discuss the successes of Mrs. Ramseys own pageant career.
Where all the Johns and Patsys differentiate though are their opinions on what happened that night based on their own experiences and life stories. Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, each one of the actors opens up about very personal moments from their own lives throughout the entirety of the film. Murder, rape, and abuse are just a few of the moments that define these actors and in turn define how they present their character.
Interestingly, the child actors are used almost as set pieces as opposed to characters. At their age, they don’t have conspiracy theories and most maintain innocence about the whole situation. Though some open up about sibling bullying or the worries of their lives, they are mostly used to portray various thematic devices.
In one scene a JonBenét complains while being dressed for makeup and a wig, reminiscent of getting ready for a beauty pageant. The young actresses are often seen in pageant-like scenes being dressed or performing dances for dramatizations.
In another scene, the young boys portraying Burke, JonBenét’s nine-year-old older brother, are tasked with smashing a watermelon with a flashlight. Though the child actors find the scene fun and aggressive, the audience knows it is a possible recreation of the head trauma that fractured JonBenét’s skull.
Casting JonBenét takes a neutral, albeit exploitive stance on the events of the murder. The filmmakers don’t do much to sway the audience into thinking a specific theory happened because they’re more interested in making you think they all happened. The dramatizations are often set against voiceovers of actors auditioning, but they are not concrete evidence and are untrustworthy. They’re in place to make the audience think one thing in juxtaposition to what is being said in another.
Even the final scene makes use of its performers by having them act out a variety of different situations from that fateful night. Cuts of them all rehearsing on the set at the same time show the audience that though these actors are all portraying the same person, they’re all playing different characters. It’s a beautifully frustrating shot that makes you yearn for answers and cast blame at uncertainty.
Casting JonBenét isn’t for everyone. It won’t leave you feeling fulfilled and will probably lead you to endless late night Wikipedia research sessions. The actors, who dive deep into their personal lives to bring forth their own version of method acting, only showcase the audience’s blindness. None of us were there, but we try to be. We try and put ourselves in the shoes of characters that are actual people.
We may never know who killed JonBenét Ramsey, but we won’t stop trying to figure it out and we certainly won’t stop being entertained by it.
Casting JonBenét is currently streaming on Netflix.