On the afternoon of Dec. 26, 1996, the lifeless body of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsay was discovered in the basement of her family’s upscale Boulder, Colorado home. Before the blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty-pageant queen was found strangled with her skull crushed, a bizarrely lengthy ransom note had been left, which many felt incriminated her parents. In the following weeks, months, and even years, the case of JonBenét Ramsay took on a life of its own. Something about the luridness of the crime, the strangeness of the kiddie-pageant subculture, and the odd behavior of her grieving mother and father grabbed the nation’s attention and refused to let go. After so many Datelines and 20/20s about the still-unsolved murder, it’s hard to imagine what’s left to say about this poor girl and her short, tragic life. Alas, here we are two decades later, still enthralled by a media circus that refuses to leave town.
One has to hand it to Australian filmmaker Kitty Green for at least trying to grapple with this particular mystery from a novel perspective in Casting JonBenét — regardless of whether you find that perspective to be boldly unconventional or maddeningly problematic. Either way, it’s certainly provocative. Green isn’t so much making a documentary in the traditional sense; it’s more a meta-exploration of our personal relationship with “the truth” (whatever that means). Constructed from a series of interviews with actors auditioning to play the doomed child and her family members (as well as other key players in the case) for a dramatic reenactment of the murder, the film defies categorization.
It also gets us no closer to what really happened. What it does offer is something more slippery. As the actors read their lines in front of a tightly framed camera, they all start spinning their own theories of what may or may not have transpired on the day after Christmas 20 years ago. In their attempts to get a handle on their characters, these hopefuls share their hunches, biases, and in some cases painful personal emotional connections to the case. It’s a fascinating meditation on acting and empathy. What it’s not is nonfiction. In fact, at times it feels downright exploitative and prurient — a collection of half-baked, uninformed gossip and speculation. After listening to dozens of these hopefuls explain why they think JonBenét’s mother killed her because she wet her bed, or how her young brother did it in a violent accident, or that a local creep did it because he was obsessed with her cotton-candy perfection, you might get the feeling that you’re looking at a mirror broken into a thousand little pieces, none of which on its own reflects the truth. A clever filmmaking experiment? Without a doubt. A satisfying one? Not so much. C+ (On Netflix April 28)