It comes as a bit of a surprise that Kitty Green’s latest documentary Casting JonBenét has very little to do with JonBenét Ramsey. The unsolved murder of the six-year-old Colorado beauty pageant queen is the unifying center, though not the subject, of this unconventional film.
Green, the Australian filmmaker behind the 2013 documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, put out a casting call to amateur actors in and around JonBenét’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado, to audition for roles in a biopic about the infamous case. Over two hundred actors auditioned for the roles of JonBenét, her parents Patsy and John, her brother Burke, and the chief of police. Through footage of audition tapes the narrative of the murder unfolds: a series of actors portray Patsy making a desperate phone call to the police, several men portray the anguished John uncovering his daughter’s body in the wine cellar, one young boy after another whispers ominously into the camera, “If you tell someone a secret, it’s no longer a secret.” Presented in quick succession, these scenes prove quite hilarious in spite of the dark nature of their content.
Beyond the scripted auditions, adult actors are solicited for their theories on what happened Christmas night some twenty years ago. As local residents of the Boulder area, the adults have at most a direct and at least an adjacent connection to the murder. One local actress felt a kinship to the Ramseys because her parents lived on the same road as the family. Another revealed that she had lost three of her own children, a tragedy that would allow her to better access the role of Patsy. “In order to act you tell the truth,” she said during her interview. One man admitted how his recent cancer diagnosis led him to a more genuine connection to the story (Patsy Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006). These highly personal revelations accomplish two goals: they link the actors to the Ramsey family, and they establish that these are not simply actors vying for a resume line, they are community members still caught in the thick of this story.
Here’s the twist: there is no JonBenét movie. And there never will be. At least not under director Kitty Green’s watch. Casting JonBenét is an exposé of how the memories and mythologies surrounding the Ramsey family continue to influence the lives of this particular Colorado community. In other words, this is a film about the prospective cast, not about JonBenét. Even more to the point, it is a film about us societally more than it is about them specifically.
Because, really, why are we still talking about JonBenét?
The simplest answer is that we crave the drama this story delivers. True crime drama is ubiquitous. Shows like Making a Murderer, alongside podcasts like Serial and its multiple investigative spin-offs, have become mainstream sources of entertainment. It is an uncomfortable admission, but we hunger for stories that sensationalize the extremes of human behavior. We want to crawl under the police tape and see the outlines of bodies. We want to speculate on motives. We want to be the one to finally solve the mystery. True crime satiates this particular appetite. It opens the door and lifts the tape, inviting us to become the experts we think ourselves to be. And could there be a more enticing story to enter than the unsolved murder of an innocent, rich, white, young girl killed in her own home on Christmas night?
“There was so much speculation,” one actress, a woman who speaks at length about the murder of her own brother, admits. “The mother had to do it,” she says, matter-of-factly. “In cases like that, it is always somebody you know,” another actress, a woman who speaks of being sexually abused as a child, states plainly. “I think he is the innocent one,” one actor, referring to JonBenét’s father, speculates. Detailed theories like these—about motive, involvement, and method—swirl throughout the film as ever-present reminders of the power of speculation in the absence of information.
True crime dramas create the illusion of involvement, be it for the audience, or in the case of Casting JonBenét, the auditioning actors. Which is fortunate, because all we truly crave is the illusion. Show us the drama but remove from us any of the responsibility. Allow us to partake without ever having to take ownership. Parade disaster at an arm’s length where we can see it clearly while retaining complete control of our lives. What true crime drama delivers, and what we continue to consume heartily, is nothing short of pageantry: a spectacle crafted for our enjoyment.
In the end, we may balk at JonBenét’s beauty pageants, but we can’t look away from the pageantry of her death.
But ubiquity is not the same as relevance. For this reason, Casting JonBenét is deliciously clever. Green enters into the familiar, exhausted territory of a worn out story, but is safe in doing so because her end goal is not to solve the mystery. Nor is she interested in the three-page ransom note, the creepy family friend, or the accusations of a child porn ring. Not once does the audience see actual footage of the Ramsey family, photos of their home draped with crime-scene tape, interviews, or evidence. This is not accidental oversight. This is how Green breaks through expected melodrama in search of what’s real. This matters because we are drawn to these stories of tragedy for reasons deeper than entertainment.
What Green uncovers is how these men and women, this group of actors, attempt to make sense of their own lives through the fractured narrative of the Ramsey story. The Ramseys essentially become a litmus test for understanding. Are mothers loving people who would never hurt their children, or are mothers monsters who kill their children out of frustration? Would a brother murder his sister in a fit of jealous rage, or are children always innocent? One by one, we see the actors use the Ramsey story as a scrim between their lived experiences and the theories they hold to be true on brokenness, love, family, and ultimately, death. And they are not alone. The audience does this as well. We arrive, we witness, we project our own ideas and experiences upon the screen, seeking truth and understanding in our own ways.
In content and form, Green places herself in good, if rare, company. Casting JonBenét echoes director Robert Greene’s 2016 documentary Kate Plays Christine, a film built on the similar faux-premise of casting and creating a narrative movie based on a decades-old public sensation. Kate Plays Christine follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to take on the role of Christine Chubbuck, a television news reporter from Sarasota, Florida, who committed suicide on-air in 1974. Blurring the line between actor and character, these films make it difficult to distinguish between the actor as performer from the actor as herself—an ambiguity that creates a compelling tension that lingers long after the film ends.
Our reasons for arriving at the screen are vast. Are we curious, bored, entitled, or hopelessly perturbed? Perhaps. Does watching a reenactment of a depressed newscaster violently commit suicide remind us of our own mortality? Or create a safe distance from it? Do we watch the unthinkable happen to another family so as to safeguard our own against such horrors? It’s possible. Or do we use stories like JonBenét’s and Christine Chubbuck’s to make sense of the brokenness of our own lives?
Casting JonBenét subtly poses these questions to a crowd of unsuspecting amateur actors. Similarly, Kate Plays Christine cuts to the quick, turning the camera on the audience and demanding a response for the impulse to view such tragedy. As moviegoers, we are free to watch what we choose—to see on the screens before us fantasy, love, crime and truth. It is a liberty not to be taken lightly. And while the choice may ultimately rest with us, so also is the onus to respond honestly as to why we continue to return to stories of tragedy. Does the pageantry of tragedy satisfy? It can. Not all cravings are honorable. But it is also possible that such pageantry can help us better understand our shattered world.