A partial list of things you will see in the meta-documentary Casting JonBenet:
-Some of the most awkward actor introductions and testimonials you have ever witnessed.
-A host of nine-year-olds attempting, and occasionally succeeding, in smashing watermelons with a Maglite flashlight.
-Various men in Santa Claus outfits, including one who explains the “white glove rule” (makes it easier to see where a professional Kris Kringle’s hands are in kids’ photos).
-Several Lifetime-like re-enactments that run the gamut from camp-lurid to purposefully banal, and all make you feel like you’ve been mildly dosed.
-A BDSM “sex educator” describing why he prefers breast torture.
-Someone patiently explaining to you that the word “disease” is also “dis-ease.”
-A line of pretty star-spangled JonBenet Ramsey lookalikes, all in a row.
A few things you won’t see:
-Old, faded footage of JonBenet’s pageants.
-That Larry King interview.
You could tell which Sundance audience members had shown up to the screenings of filmmaker Kitty Green’s movie expecting to see a true-crime vérité hot take: They were the ones whose heads were exploding. An Australian documentarian less interested in investigative journalism than the beautiful, ugly, contradictory phenomenon known as human behavior, Green traveled to Boulder, Colorado – home of the Ramseys – and recruit local actors for a project based on the 1996 murder case that shocked a nation and sold tabloids. She shot the auditions and numerous America’s Most Wanted-esque scenes of press conferences, corpse discoveries and jail-cell conversations; the director then encouraged her performers to offer their theories and open up about their own past. A would-be John Ramsey talks about his time as a federal felon and another describes discovering his girlfriend had died next to him in the middle of the night. Potential Patsy Ramseys mention child molestions, abusive alcoholic fathers, their own rage spirals toward their kids. Everyone thinks that ransom note was way too long to be legit. Everyone thinks they know who did it.
Look elsewhere, those seeking a just-the-facts dossier or the sort of Ramseysploitation that’s recently run rampant on our airwaves. Green is after bigger game here – she isn’t interested in whodunnit so much as what our obsessions over such cases say about us. Every aspect of the murder is provided in the film by crowd-sourced gossip and often vague recollections about the suspects, spoken plainly while staring into the camera à la an Errol Morris interrogation. (Even if she hadn’t namedropped the legendary docmaker’s name in the Q&A, you could tell Green is a fan from both the Thin Blue Line-ish recreations and skirting the fine line between invoking laughter at vs. sympathy with her thirsty-actor subjects. She might also be his heir apparent.)
But it’s merely a starting point for people to dig into their aspirations, delusions, traumas and need to weigh in on such court-of-public-opinion matters, which recasts Casting JonBenet into a referendum on how we process such mediafied horror stories. Anyone can recreate a Wikipedia page for the screen. Not everyone can turn the unsolved mystery of a little girl’s grisly demise into such a compelling look not only at the evil that men do but the fascination with such curious dark sides – and the people who play such folks for a living.
Or make it double as a biting indictment on our age of true-crime tragedytainment, which is where Casting JonBenet draws bruises and blood. Like last year’s Sundance alumnus Kate Plays Christine, the movie uses its “behind the scenes” peeks and performance interludes to question the entire notion of recycling police-blotter reports as primetime viewing. Scenes such as the finding of JonBenet’s body in the family basement and the parents’ plea to reporters about sickening circulating rumors are rerun with different actors and vastly different readings; definitive “takes” are merely one of many variations on a theme. Just because we will never know who really killed JonBenet Ramsey doesn’t mean we won’t keep recreating that abyss to stare back into, the movie suggests, or keep consuming the endless breaking-news reports, decades-later Dateline excavations and ratings-courting docudramas about it. By the time the movie drops its stylistic coup – a tracking shot past JB bedroom sets, all filled with dozens of costumed Johns and Patsys reading scripts, lounging about, shooting the shit – you’re dizzy from the down-the-rabbit-hole plunge.
This was a standout year for docs at Sundance, in which the festival offered semi-gonzo investigations on Russian doping (Icarus); experiential looks at Indian sweat shops (Machines); old-fashioned journalistic chronicles on domestic terrorism (the extraordinary Oklahoma City) and attacks on our First Amendment (Nobody Speak); multilayered looks at the big-game hunting industry (Trophy); and not one, not two but three eye-opening films about the crisis in Syria, all of which are worth a look and none of which our willfully ignorant, morally backwards new executive branch will probably see. But for some reason, Green’s film was the one that I could not get stuck out of my head for days. It’s a smorgasbord for thought that makes you reconsider being both an active player and passive participant in such endeavors. You can’t look away from it. You also want to grope for the off button.