“Casting JonBenet” documentary examines community post-tragedy

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In the first 10 minutes of filmmaker Kitty Green’s documentary “Casting JonBenet,” a handful of area actors are introduced, with many from Boulder, Colo., the location of the infamous JonBenet Ramsey case. Though Green’s piece is non-fiction, it’s definitely full of characters.

On Dec. 26, 1996, six-year-old JonBenet was kidnapped from her family’s basement, held for ransom and eventually murdered. The tragedy gained nationwide, morbid attention as the Ramsey parents were hosted on late night shows, rumors ran rampant and the American people each formulated their own ideas as to who did it.

Then, a few audition tapes are played. At first, it’s slightly jarring. The scene flips through each of the actresses all portraying a panicking Patsy Ramsey on the phone, calling about her missing daughter. Then it jumps back to the interviewing and scenes from the dramatization only make an occasional appearance. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the dramatization of the case isn’t the focus of Green’s work—it’s merely used as a means for the actors to contribute their thoughts.

The result is an incredible array of responses. Some are quiet and uncertain. One man mentions how drawing conclusions is tricky, as there are visible holes in all theories. It’s also clear the case deeply shook the community of Boulder.

Rather than revisiting the facts of an iconic case like a traditional documentary, Green instead presents an examination of how day-to-day citizens react to loss. This makes the effort far more relatable to the viewer. “Casting JonBenet” is at its best when it’s highlighting the actors’ intimate, human sides and how they communicate to the world through their work.

Green also draws attention to the more sinister side of tragedy as well. Some of her interviewees chatter openly with authority about the morals of the Ramsey’s and what happened, as though on daytime television. It’s gossipy and uncomfortable but also intriguing. One actress speculates about Patsy Ramsey saying, “I’m sure she was a royal bitch of a mother.”

Through her interviews, Kitty Green reflects the faces of loss, but also the subsequent gross fascination humans have with the loss of others, as seen in the documentary and originally back in 1996 with all the clamor over the case. In this, “Casting JonBenet” is like an examination of the rubbernecking that occurs at car accidents, as drivers slow down to gawk at the chaos.

Still, Green’s documentary does lose focus at times, presenting an abundance of themes and ideas without fully developing any. For instance, she includes a segment discussing the bizarrity of child pageantry but it’s a cursory look and not really discussed. Other times, Greene include bits that might just make the audience uncomfortable. In one scene, the 10-year old actors vying for the role of JonBenet’s brother are shown playfully smashing watermelons with hammers. It feels ill-fitting and crude.

Moments like this explain why Green’s film has stirred up controversy. If someone were to just see the aforementioned scenes without the context of the rest of the documentary, it’s understandable how it could be seen as exploitative. Again though, Green doesn’t focus on the actual details of a girl’s murder, leaving that up to the case investigators. There is no glorification of disaster. Instead, she examines the community that had to deal with it.

As an aside, there are no interviews with the girls who audition for JonBenet, so the title seems poorly chosen.

Though it’s not a flawless or groundbreaking documentary, Green’s “Casting JonBenet” follows an interesting course. People are weird, multifaceted creatures and Green does a good job of exploring that. The documentary “Casting JonBenet” is not another examination of the JonBenet tragedy – it’s an interesting reflection of how human beings react to it.

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