Chilling documentary asks why we’re still obsessing over 20-year-old mystery
By Noah Orent – Contributing Writer
Eight young girls, all sporting blonde locks and all wearing the same patriotic costume, sit next to each other in a row of director’s chairs. As they chatter among themselves, the camera cuts to one of the girls facing an unseen interviewer.
“My name’s Hannah and I’m auditioning for the role of JonBenét Ramsey,” she says. After a beat, she looks up with wide eyes and asks, “Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?”
This simple question serves as the backdrop for “Casting JonBenét,” a documentary hybrid currently streaming on Netflix. To call it a true crime documentary, however, would be a gross understatement. It’s a brutally honest piece of nonfiction that uses one of America’s most controversial cases to produce a searing critique of public perception. It’s an exposé on sensationalism and the power it continues to hold over a tight-knit Colorado community.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, the mastermind behind the 2013 documentary “Ukraine is Not A Brothel”, the film revolves around an open casting call for a non-existent biopic about the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Layering interviews with amateur actors – all of whom live in and around the child beauty queen’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado – over casting footage, Ms. Green illustrates how the cannibalistic society that is America ate up the events surrounding the heinous crime before turning against everyone involved and eating them alive.
To bring this unconventional narrative to life, Ms. Green forgoes textbook sit-down interview sessions. She instead focuses on the actors themselves and their personal recollections of the case. This approach imbues the final product with a sense of openness, allowing us to witness the murder and its aftermath from an outside point of view.
In conjunction with this, several auditionees reveal an indirect connection to the Ramsey family through their casting tapes. A woman auditioning to play Patsy Ramsey mentions that she lived near the Ramseys around the time of the murder. A man recalls waking up next to his dead girlfriend and how it helped him recreate the moment John Ramsey found his daughter’s body. Several boys trying out for the role of Burke Ramsey reflect on teasing their siblings and how they would incorporate that experience into their auditions.
These on-camera confessionals help us understand that the auditionees are more than just actors looking for their big break. They’re ordinary people who watched their lives become forever changed by a case that shocked the nation; men and women who turned to the past in order to make sense of the present. And that is perhaps the strongest quality about “Casting JonBenét”: It reveals our underlying need to pursue the truth. It illustrates the fact that we watch “Dateline NBC” and listen to “Serial” because we want to play armchair detective. We feel compelled to answer questions experts can’t and come up with our own when others don’t.
At the same time, Ms. Green makes us ask ourselves why we continue to obsess over a dormant murder investigation. Does hearing about the unthinkable peak our curiosity? Does it satiate some disturbing appetite? Or does it help us as we figure out a way to prevent future tragedies from taking place?
“Casting JonBenét” does not answer any of these questions nor does it reveal who killed JonBenét Ramsey. It does, however, leave us grappling with the meaning of truth. It forces us to analyze its complex nature and understand that there are more than two sides to every story.