REVIEW: Casting JonBenet

29 04 2017

What are we talking about when we talk about true crime? It’s rarely the victims, and it’s seldom even the criminal act in question. So often, these cases that play out in the media and catch a foothold in American culture provide a convenient release valve for other societal anxieties. As two 2016 projects explored, the O.J. Simpson trial was about race, gender and class in American life, and the case was hardly an outlier. Recently, we’ve seen the Casey Anthony trial about negligent millennial parenting and the Travyon Martin/Eric Garner cases about race relations and implicit bias. History books are lined with mass public hysteria over legal disputes going back centuries.

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” contorts the conventions of documentary cinema to observe this phenomena at the granular level. Under the guise of filming a fictional piece about the mysteries surrounding the murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, Green interviews town locals of Boulder, CO (the site of the crime) who audition to play key figures in the story. Many of the amateur actors are not approaching the JonBenet case with remoteness or remove; most adults are within a degree of separation from the Ramsey family. Some even interacted with them directly.

With so many questions still remaining about the involvement of JonBenet’s mother Kitty, her father Jon and a costumed Santa Claus, each performer must bring a certain amount of judgement to the role. What do they believe about the case? Unheard and unseen, Green interrogates her coterie of aspiring actors about the biases and assumptions they bring to the part. Their answers, revealed plainly to the camera in front of them, reveal convictions based less on facts and more on personal experiences as well as cultural assumptions about the roles available to the person they are auditioning to play. The actors, like most of us who get drawn into crime stories, turn real people into fictional characters by projecting our own fears onto them.

Green has no interest in solving the JonBenet Ramsey murder, deliberately eschewing procedural or investigative tropes in favor of an open-ended lack of resolution. Was it the brother? The mother? The Santa? The father? Green answers, yes. “Casting JonBenet” allows for a radical coexistence of all these interpretations and theories. In the absence of evidence, all we’re left with to adjudicate the cases is our internal compass in an attempt to restore the balance of morality shattered by an immoral act. A- /

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