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Not just because a helpless tot was the victim of a heinous crime, but also because the investigation that ensued eventually turned into one of those leadless, perfunctorily probed cold cases that always seems to be on the cusp of being solved. Even though it has been more than 20 years since the crime was committed, we’re always waiting on the edge of our seats for some kind of answer, a twist that will likely never come.
Culturally, the story has become so murky and dangerously speculated upon that at this point it seems impossible to objectively — or accurately — portray the events of the case in the confines of a television show or a film. So at first glance, the existence of a documentary called “Casting JonBenet” seems rather fishy. We’re almost certain that what’s in store will possibly be some sort of insensitive sister of a Lifetime channel reenactment, meant to do little other than cash in on tragedy and lurid interest.
What we find, though, is actually a feature closer resembling Robert Greene’s enigmatic “Actress” (2014). The latter “documentary,” which received little mainstream attention when it came out almost four years ago, depicted an aging actress’ attempts to make a comeback. While doing so, however, it blurred the lines between reality and fantasy by inserting “acted” scenes between the supposedly candid ones. “Casting JonBenet” is comparably ambiguous. Here, we almost exclusively watch a series of auditions, but we’re apprehensive as to how genuine they are.
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The film’s writer and director, Kitty Green, stages it all rather trickily. The actors on which the spotlight is put are here presumably to star in a movie about the Ramsey case. They expectedly all think they’ll be running through line readings and starring in intimate screen tests.
But we come to learn that Green isn’t seeking to make a movie about the JonBenét Ramsey case per se. Who she’s really interested in are the people wanting to star in this in-the-works project.
So often, determined actors look to find out why a given character’s motivated to do something. Green twists this. While the movie expectedly lets people share how they’d play John, Patsy, JonBenét, or even the Santa Claus impersonator involved with the investigation, it more noticeably takes the time to ask those auditioning why they’re motivated to be part of this particular project.
Then the movie unspools. After first introducing themselves as fairly delusional hopefuls who seem to have been spoonfed tabloids and Nancy Grace their entire lives these inexperienced, mostly local actors slowly but surely begin letting on why they wanted to join this cinematic venture.
It turns out that many of them have seen family members die tragically. Some of them have suffered from mental illnesses they’re certain Patsy also had. One woman even survived a violent crime herself, and has, in the years since, felt an inexplicable personal connection to the case.
These revelations — which emotionally hit hard — uncover a larger truth. Green obliquely argues that the central crime/media event has not endured in the public memory just because it is fascinating or because it perpetually seems to be on the brink of resolution. It has also endured because so many individuals have found similarities between the case and their own lives.
Once this point is indirectly made, the film clicks. The reason why movies, television shows, or even slices of tabloid nonsense can sometimes resonate with us so deeply often has to do with the fact that we can dependably find comfort in knowing that other people in the world, whether fiction or nonfiction, have had similar experiences as us. “Casting JonBenet” makes for a rather ingenious encapsulation of that unsaid truth. The end result is powerful and defines Green as one of the most clever, original documentarians of her generation.