Casting JonBenet (Dir. Kitty Green), the highly anticipated meta-documentary released as a Netflix-exclusive film about the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was met with mixed reactions- mostly because the idea of making a film about the actual brutal murder of an actual child didn’t sit well with many people. 1996 wasn’t that long ago. Is it exploitative? Probably. But by that logic, every film about or based on a real-life tragedy is exploitative. I am willing to defend this film’s existence despite its tendency to insert some black humor, as it doesn’t set out to minimize the seriousness of the crime. Unlike other crime documentaries, it is less focused on solving the mystery at hand and more focused on reactions to what we know about the murder and the inevitable biases that come with it.
Director Kitty Green’s approach to one of the most discussed murder mysteries of all time was extremely creative and unique. She auditions mostly Colorado-based amateur actors to portray the different characters in the JonBenet story. They are interviewed, and they discuss their interpretation of the characters, the script, and what they think actually happened. At the risk of sounding insensitive, the murder of JonBenet Ramsey is the perfect real-life whodunit. There are many theories, and all of them have merit. Every player has a motive and there is evidence proving and disproving every claim. And because of this, there are no clear answers. We don’t know for sure what happened on that night in 1996, and we will probably never know. This is a rare case in which everyone who knows about this case has a different theory. The mom did it. The dad. The brother. A pedophile. A Santa Claus impersonator. The Illuminati. It was an accident. It was on purpose. It was staged. It was a cover-up. Everything I just said is a possibility (Yes even Santa Claus and the Illuminati). Nothing is off the table. So why re-hash old evidence and make an unavoidably biased documentary about solving this mystery when we can make the documentary about that very bias? It’s brilliant, because through this we are able to gain insight into what makes people lean toward one side or the other and thus reflect on our own interpretation of this story. Some of the women auditioning to play Patsy Ramsey, for example, felt that she was innocent because they themselves are mothers and couldn’t comprehend wanting to murder their own child. Others felt Patsy was guilty because of what they understand about stage mothers and pageant queens. The possibility that 9-year-old Burke Ramsey killed her was entertained by asking the adults if they thought a 9 year old was physically capable of killing a 6 year old with blunt force, and immediately cutting to the young actors auditioning for Burke smashing a watermelon with a hammer. Their perspectives aren’t necessarily based in hard truths- it’s all speculation.
The sharp editing and symmetrical framing gives this film almost a Wes Andersonian vibe, which is one of the main reasons Casting JonBenet is being criticized for exploitation. To be fair, they at no point involve the child actors in the discussion of the murder. The boys auditioning for Burke are asked about their relationship with their siblings and the very young girls auditioning for the title role are barely interviewed at all. I would also argue that asking strangers for their input doesn’t minimize the situation at hand, but rather the opposite- instead of coldly looking at the facts, we see the emotional impact of such a brutal murder through the eyes of people like us. People who are removed from the situation trying to comprehend such a cruel thing happening to a child by putting themselves in the shoes of the perpetrators, or the victims, or the witnesses. Rather than avoid bias, Kitty Green embraces it.