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CASTING JONBENET Isn’t the Documentary You Think It Is (Sundance Review)

CASTING JONBENET Isn’t the Documentary You Think It Is (Sundance Review)

After Making of a Murderer, OJ: Made in America, and other criminal documentaries with decades-old flair, the natural assumption is that Casting JonBenet will mine the highly publicized, unsolved child murder in order to bring it back into the public’s consciousness. Did they uncover new evidence? Is there a new confession? Will this case finally get a satisfying, shocking conclusion?

Kitty Green’s documentary isn’t interested in those questions.

Instead, she’s built a revealing piece of non-fiction on the foundation of a fascinating concept. Instead of building an archival footage Frankenstein’s monster of blurry facts, Green interviews dozens of Colorado regional actors as they audition to play the family at the heart of the crime. The result is an excellent documentary that reveals more about how all of us respond to public tragedy than how this unknowable family did.

At first, Casting JonBenet feels like it’s displaying what Gone Girl so thoroughly lampooned: our passion for becoming amateur detectives when a crime gets national attention. To judge the facial expressions of suspects or to do deem someone’s mourning phony. To inject our own biases, convincing ourselves of the solution, and feeling superior the entire investigation.

Yet the Netflix film is much more than a sneering window into crackpot theories and people who know far too many details about something that didn’t happen to them personally. It was a fantastically smart move to hire actors who live near where the murder happened because they all bring an encyclopedic knowledge to the table as well as a vested interest in telling the story.

For those who don’t know, six-year-old JonBenet Ramsay—a participant in youth beauty pageants—was found murdered in her parents’ basement just after Christmas 1996. It became a media frenzy. Here was this perfect, adorable angel killed under mysterious circumstances, whose parents were both the prime suspects and eager for the spotlight. There was an odd three-page ransom note, police department screw-ups, and rumors of a child porn ring conspiracy. In other words, irresistible, trashy media fodder.

As Casting JonBenet continues, it replaces the gross speculation with a real sense of who these actors are. By opening up about their own personal tragedies, we start to understand them on a human level, and we gain a window into why they would hypothesize about the murder the way they do. Some think it was definitely the parents, some think it was an intruder, some think it was a professional Santa who had been to the house, some think it was a porn conspiracy, some think the police were in on it, some think it was the young brother whom the parents had to protect. All of them are sure they’re right.

Its timeliness as a frustrating penetration of how we absorb, justify, and rationalize news cannot be understated. A dozen people are shown the exact same (admittedly complex) picture, and they all come to different conclusions.

The film does two viciously clever things with that post-truth foundation. One, we never hear any facts about the case; every bit of information is filtered through people who remember it from when it was local/national news. Two, Green uses the second half of the film to regularly juxtapose her speakers’ thoughts so that they contradict each other. After one woman states confidently that it was the parents because they couldn’t even pretend to show emotion at the press conferences, another woman whose brother was murdered explains how her parents were numb and emotionless when they’d learned of his death. After one man suggests the little brother, Burke, couldn’t have done it because a nine-year-old boy couldn’t hit that hard, Green inserts footage of her nine-year-old boy actors swinging a heavy metal object at head-sized watermelons that crack and explode.

The layers of absurdity build on each other, hopefully making us all question our assumptions about the internal workings of the people around us. All the different versions of who we make strangers to be.

The final bit of brilliance from Casting JonBenet comes after you’ve heard these actors explain their own traumas: sexual assault, cancer diagnoses, personality disorder problems, murder. Not only do these elements explain why these individuals came to the conclusions they did about the Ramsay family, it also questions why one family receives national attention despite hundreds of millions of broken hearts living here. It exposes the thin, manufactured connective tissue between the public and JonBenet Ramsay, Octomom, Grumpy Cat, and Adam Levine on The Voice.

This isn’t really a documentary about the Ramsays; it’s about these regular people with their theories and research, and they are all of us.

4 out of 5 alternative burritos

4-burritos

Images: Netflix

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