Review: ‘Casting JonBenet’ (2017)

A brilliant documentary about the leftovers, rather than the event.

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How does one make a documentary film about a tragedy for which there will never be a satisfying culprit? Quite simply, one engages instead with the subconscious effect the tragedy had on the local populace. Enter Casting JonBenet, a film by Australian director Kitty Green, who uses an alternative angle to dissect an already convoluted story.

The film uses the premise of an audition for a ‘JonBenet’ film as the catalyst to getting its actors talking on the subject. Wisely, Casting JonBenet avoids pointing the finger at any one suspect. Instead, it allows those auditioning (deliberately chosen for their loose connections to the actual incident) to point hundreds of fingers in wild, strange, and often completely illogical directions. Their anecdotes are touching, flawed, sometimes disturbing and sometimes hilarious. They share a common trait: a human response to a cold and brutal murder. Most importantly, their stories reveal that the gossip surrounding JonBenet does not entirely evade reality – it is in fact the only truth the public will ever know.

There is an incredible surrealism to the production. Each actor is fully costumed, and surrounded by a full set. Their anecdotal evidence is punctuated by scenes wherein each one recreates the events leading up to, or following the murder. Through the metaphor of each actor imposing their experience on the part, we realise that a similar phenomenon has happened to the Ramsey family since the day of JonBenet’s death. These scenes appear highly stylised, which perhaps renders the pure emotion of the actors even more heartbreaking – many of them knew the Ramseys, or have experience with death. The film goes further, and touches on the cultural nightmare of child pageants, and the woes of sexualising children.

What this astounding documentary highlights is that sometimes what remains in the aftermath of a crime is just as horrifying as the crime itself. In every attempt to reenact the murder, we see a glimmer of what might have been, the endless possibilities of an unsolved case. Casting JonBenet is above all else a cautionary tale, a warning against the potential dangers brought about by domestic malaise.