Context is everything in Kitty Green’s documentary Casting JonBenet. The 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey quickly became a media sensation in the U.S., garnering scrutiny and gossip from around the world. When Casting JonBenet starts, it seems like its made up of light, funny interviews with people auditioning to play characters in a reenactment of the crime and following investigation, which was never solved. But through clever editing and deeply personal actor interviews, the film slowly turns into a commentary on community, tragedy and coping with unknown.
The film begins by telling two stories: one showing the actors’ auditions, and one showing a reenactment of the days and weeks after the crime. The actors participating are local to Colorado, living in the shadow of JonBenet’s murder (even 20 years later). The audition tapes show men, women and children reading lines and discussing why they would be a good fit to play members of the Ramsey family, cops or other figures involved in the case. Casting JonBenet focuses mostly on JonBenet’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, who perhaps underwent the most scrutiny in the media after their daughter was killed.
The real names of those auditioning for the roles are not revealed in the film, so the actors begin to embody John and Patsy, sometimes feeling like phantoms that haunt Boulder and will never truly go away. It helps that John and Patsy’s names are sometimes used as generic words that anyone can step into. Anyone taking the blame for something can be a patsy, and any man can fill in for a john. These roles are fitting for Patsy and John Ramsey, respectively, according to the actors playing them. A large proportion of the actors in Casting JonBenet are quick to blame Patsy for JonBenet’s death — for being too crazy, too beautiful, too high strung, too emotional, too maternal or not maternal enough. Sexism is evident in the way the community talks about her, with people sometimes relishing in the idea of a crazy woman who had finally had enough. Many of the actors presume John is innocent, but he doesn’t get off scot free from the rumor mill, either. Through the actors’ interviews, it becomes clear that there are plenty of theories to cover every dark possibility of what happened the night JonBenet was killed.
The film builds emotional tension and darkness with the way it reveals information. Just like the actual murder investigation, the more information that comes out, the weirder and darker things get, leading to more questions and suspicions instead of answers. When the actors repeat lines and scenes for their auditions, they each give a slightly different reading, just like people repeating facts and rumors to each other. This technique mirrors how stories spread in communities, like a giant game of telephone.
The audition scenes and actor interviews are intimate, with the subject centered within a square frame, as if what they say could be neatly and tidily put into a box. As the film continues, though, nothing they say remains neat, or easy. As more information about the murder is revealed, jokes that seemed light at first later seem tragic. One of the women auditioning to play Patsy is particularly gutting when she asks if the real Patsy ever loved her little girl. Though the actors at first seem campy when they act out tragic scenes without any context, there’s more emotion and depth as information comes to light.
The actor interviews also get more emotional and deeper as the film progresses. They recall their own personal tragedies so they can access the emotion needed to play John and Patsy. These moments humanize both the actors and the real John and Patsy. If everyone has a personal tragedy, it’s easy to imagine that anyone could have been John and Patsy had fate played out differently. Once again, anyone could step into their roles.
The editing is where the story of Casting JonBenet is truly built. Hours and hours of interviews and auditions are weaved together to create a narrative that builds on itself, culminating in a scene that plays out different rumors and scenarios that could have occurred the night JonBenet died. The way the film ties together the auditions with the reenactments creates a stunning, emotional finale.
The final scene recontextualizes the film once more. There is no definitive scenario of what happened because the murder remains unsolved. No one knows what’s real, and each actor and member of the community has their own way of dealing with not knowing. It seems fitting to tell this story by focusing on the community and rumors left over after the murder. When a six-year-old is killed for no known reason, rumors, guesses and grief is all that’s left.
Rae Nudson (@rclnudson) is a writer based in Chicago. She has written for The Billfold, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Esquire and Real Life, and has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Rae loves horror and anything with a strong visual point of view, and she often watches the same movie 100 times in a row.