Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Is Casting JonBenet, the new “drama-documentary” from director Kitty Green, exploitive? Yes, of course. How could it not be?
At this point every film about the sensational, unsolved murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey must be. It’s well beyond the point, now 20 years later, of anyone finding anything genuinely new or enlightening about the case.
The film, however, is also sly, witty and very creative. The title says it all. This quite literally is a movie about the casting of a fake movie about JonBenet, set in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado.
The twist is that the largely amateur actors who try out for the parts of parents John and Patsy Ramsey, brother Burke and yes, JonBenet, as well other key characters in the case, don’t know it’s a fake movie, or at least didn’t know at the time their casting call interviews and rehearsals were being filmed.
Being from Boulder, the would-be actors have varying degrees of separations from the real-life Ramseys and seemingly all — or, at least the adults — have well-formed opinions as to what really happened Christmas Day 1996 when JonBenet was last seen alive.
Along the way these good folk of Boulder reveal deeply personal details on camera. One discloses he has just been diagnosed with cancer, another that she was sexually molested as a child and still another that she has lost three of her own children.
All of these tragedies are articulated in the hope that it will make them more qualified for the roles they hope to secure in the (fake) movie.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene is when the young boys trying out for the role of Burke, JonBenet’s only sibling who was nine years old at the time of her murder, are asked to test the theory as whether another child (like Burke) could have had enough strength to have caused the fracture of JonBenet’s skull, which contributed to her death.
The camera rolls as the young actors one after another go at it with a bat and a watermelon, most of them cracking the watermelon wide open, and one of them then taking a taste of the oozing red pulp.
Ok, there’s more to the film than mere shock value. To a degree, and through several dramatizations, it re-examines the key sequence of events in the murder, which, truth be told, casts further doubt on the denials by the Ramseys that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder.
On a broader level it explores Americans’ obsession with celebrity and our need for pop culture mythologies.
Casting JonBenet is like watching a car wreck. It’s horrifying at times but you just can’t take your eyes off of it.