‘Casting JonBenet’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Dazzlingly stretches the boundaries of documentary filmmaking.

Not your usual whodunnit investigative documentary, director Kitty Green's blend of fact and fiction explores the JonBenet Ramsey murder through the eyes of actors auditioning for a docudrama about the case.

Building on an approach to nonfiction storytelling she first explored in the her award-winning short The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green creates something powerful, provocative and dazzlingly original with her second feature documentary, Casting JonBenet. In essence, this sui generis work offers a kaleidoscopic array of personal reactions to the famous 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsay.

But the interviewees are not people who were directly involved in the case, although some had very tangential connections to the murder. Instead, they are all actors: a mix of professional and non-pro, from in and around Boulder, Colorado (where JonBenet lived and died), auditioning to play the murdered child’s now-deceased mother, Patsy, father, John, brother, Burke and, of course, JonBenet herself, among others.

Over the course of the film, the participants share not just their own hunches and suspicions about what happened that morning after Christmas, but also personal revelations about themselves and why the case resonates with them so deeply 20 years on. Ultimately, this evolves into a layered meditation on many things — crime and guilt, the exploitation of children and acting itself, to name just a few. Playful, prismatic but ultimately richly moving, Casting JonBenet will have a limited theatrical release in April 2017 before it becomes exclusive to Netflix.

In the end credits, many of the onscreen participants are credited with numerous parts, billings that read something like “Patsy Ramsey/Patsy Ramsey Auditionee/Herself,” a hint that there are complicated sedimentary layers of performance at play here. After a while, you start to wonder if some of the stories they tell seemingly about themselves are not further fictions or Method-style attempts to stay in character.

Whatever the case may be, Green, in collaboration with her casting associates Annie Hamilton and Brian McCulley, has managed to find an impressively diverse spectrum of characters and types with distinctly different takes on the JonBenet story. Just among the mostly middle-aged women auditioning for the role of Patsy alone, there are those who empathize deeply with the former beauty queen and find it unthinkable, especially as mothers themselves, that she might have murdered her own child. Others, however, seem firmly persuaded that she killed JonBenet herself, snapping under assorted stress factors such as the holiday season, the girl’s bed-wetting problem and even a rivalrous rage at seeing her daughter become more successful on the beauty pageant circuit.

Rest assured, nearly every conceivable theory is aired about what happened that night, ranging from the pedophile-intruder theories to abuse from those closer to home. One telling juxtaposition has a female actor saying she can’t believe Burke, JonBenet’s older brother who was nine at the time, would have had the strength to deal the mortal head wound that contributed to JonBenet’s death. Green and ace editor Davis Coombe (Being Evel, Chasing Coral) immediately cut to some of the little boys auditioning for the role of Burke ably smashing watermelons with large flashlights. One cheeky tyke has a sly nibble on a bit of shattered fruit, one of many moments of serendipitous, seemingly unplanned comedy that lightens the grim burden of the subject. (Another star turn is provided by an auditionee eager to explain his work as a "sex instructor.")

The point, however — unlike many of the documentaries about the case over the years, some of which have prompted libel cases from the surviving Ramsey family members — is not to make a definitive argument that this or that person or persons, known or unknown, killed JonBenet. Rather, her tragic death becomes a prism through which the stories and feelings of the actors themselves, and of course our own, are refracted. A man shares how his performance changed between the time he was cast for this film and the time he was called in for the film’s grand finale, because in the intervening time he was diagnosed with cancer. One woman shares how she was sexually abused as a child when she was about JonBenet’s age, while another discusses how her own brother’s murder affects her perspective on the case and her need to bear witness through acting.

In Green’s debut feature-length doc, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, an account of the topless feminist protest group Femen, the director became so embedded with her subjects that she coaxed remarkable moments of honesty from them, as well as shocking revelations that made headlines back then. Working this time with American subjects, Green once again demonstrates a remarkable skill at drawing out her subjects, and they reward her with astonishing frankness in the interviews.

Even more extraordinary, in the final part of the film, where they act out scenes from the night of the murder with each other, some of the performances are blindingly good. The climactic shot is a long track across the set made up to look like the Ramsey house, where all the auditionees in identical clothes — a dozen or so Patsys, Johns, Burkes and JonBenets — all play out their scenes at once in a precisely timed panorama, as carefully choreographed as a work of avant-garde theater. Cinematographer Michael Latham, who collaborated with Green on her previous films, lights this sequence and the individual interviews with a cool, Old Master-style palette that adds extra poise and grace to the proceedings.

As did Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Casting JonBenet expands the formal horizons of documentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, not to take a particular side, but to question how we can ever know what really happened. It may be about a murder that occurred more than 20 years ago, but on another level it’s a film that feels very much a product of these troubled, post-truth times.  

Production companies: A Netflix presentation of a Forensic Films, Symbolic Exchange, Meridian Entertainment, Cinereach production
Director: Kitty Green
Producers: Kitty Green, Scott Macaulay, James Schamus
Executive producers: Jennifer Dong, Figo Li
Co-producer: Mitch Dickman
Director of photography: Michael Latham
Production designer: Leah Popple
Costume designer: Catharina Schurenberg
Editor: Davis Coombe
Music: Nathan Larson
Music supervisor: Tracy McKnight
Casting: Annie Hamilton, Brian McCulley
No rating, 80 minutes