Netflix’s Casting JonBenet is a less a true crime documentary and more an examination of true crime obsessions and true crime documentaries themselves.
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Casting JonBenet follows the casting process for one of the dramatic reconstructions you often see in a true crime documentary. Using casting tapes for actors auditioning for the Ramsey family and suspects we’re looking at how this story is told and how it has been told time and time again.
There’s no explicit retelling, Casting JonBenet knows that you know what happened Christmas of 1996 and they know their prospective actors know as well. It’s a look too how a tragedy has transformed into something else completely through the words of actors auditioning for the parts.
Several professional and semi-professional actors come into an audition for the role of Mr and Mrs Ramsey, talking to the camera about what they see in their prospective part. The hopeful actors are looking for parts in the character to identify with while slipping into pet theories influenced by their own life events.
Although it’s not explicitly stated the whole production takes place very close to Boulder, where this happened over 20 years ago. Some of the actor’s mention having a loose connection to the Ramsey family or the street where it all happened.
And that’s why I think this is a documentary about true crime documentaries rather than something like forensic files. We’re seeing twenty years of speculation and people who have seen a few of them in preparation as they pick over the crime.
One scene borrows from a recent JonBenet doc, showing the young boys auditioning for Burke smash a child sized watermelon while one of the John Ramsey’s says a child couldn’t do that sort of damage.
The documentary uses the young girls auditioning for JonBenet sparingly and each moment it feels powerful. As one person finishes talking about the murder of this little girl the documentary will cut to one of them talking to the camera or lining up in a beauty pageant outfit.
It’s creepy, it’s exploitative and that’s sort of the point as a little girl’s death has become such a point of fascination in pop culture people are forgetting the tragedy at the heart of it is that a little girl lost her life.
Casting Jonbenet doesn’t subscribe to a theory but gives you plenty to choose from, in the final scenes we see twelve (maybe?) Patsy and John Ramsey’s act out scenes simultaneously in one long shot before being interrupted by ‘JonBenet’ in a final dance, still alive for many people.
Whether Casting JonBenet is perpetuating the questionable nature of America’s obsession with this story or satirising it remains to be seen, but it’s a unique look into a case everyone knows and brings something new to the table that hasn’t been seen at this level.