How ‘Casting JonBenet’ Commits a Documentary Sin to Make a Good Point

Kitty Green’s unique new film is positively problematic.

The word “meta” is being used a lot to describe Casting JonBenet, and of course it is a meta documentary but so are most. The less boring way to write about Kitty Green’s original feature is to address how and why it’s meta. Casting JonBenet works on layers of media literacy that is nothing short of brilliant, yet the film achieves this brilliance by turning one of documentary’s worst offenses on itself.

When watching docs, it’s impossible not to have feelings and opinions about the subjects and subject matter, but it’s never appropriate to pass judgment on real people solely through the lens of a single work of nonfiction cinema. Doc subjects shouldn’t be laughed at nor criticized as part of any review of the film they’re in. And they certainly shouldn’t be unfairly set up as buffoons or punching bags by the filmmakers.

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Likewise, when following a murder case, it’s hard not to have opinions about the people involved. Everyone’s a suspect, but also most are not the killer. That means there’s a lot of undeserved scrutiny directed at innocents. It comes at us through the media’s coverage, influencing our ideas about people we don’t know. Such judgements shouldn’t be for reporters or anyone other than detectives on the case to publicly express or engage with.

Casting JonBenet uses, as its foundation, a murder case that was dragged through tabloids and for which everyone has a theory. Mostly the general public looks at JonBenet Ramsey’s mother, father, brother, and family friends, maybe even Santa Claus, as the little girl’s murderer because there’s a simple narrative and motive or accidental situation for each, as their whole being is put into the spotlight and judged.

The doc lets some of that judgement and speculation come through in its interviews with random, irrelevant locals of Boulder, Colorado, where the murder took place. These participating characters are amateur actors trying out for parts in a dramatization of the Ramsey story. They sort of know facts and rumors and presumptions about the case. Some offer personal takes. Some share terrible things that have happened to them.

There are a lot of points being subtly made about how we view and talk about crimes and tragedies like the JonBenet murder in all these testimonials. One highlights the way we discuss and try to relate to other people’s misfortunes so that it winds up being about ourselves. Another is how we judge people for how strange they seem or for certain unfortunate things they say or do or how they might show signs of rage.

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Some of it is in the way Green (with editor Davis Coombe) cuts the interviews so that some of the participants appear creepier or weirder than others. There’s a Santa who says he likes children and giving children gifts, and as snipped so tightly makes him sound inappropriate in those interests. There’s a man trying out for the part of JonBenet’s father who casually admits to having woken up to find his girlfriend dead beside him.

Who doesn’t immediately suspect that the Santa is secretly a pedophile or that that man actually killed that girlfriend? Who doesn’t giggle a bit at the bounty hunter who moonlights as a sex worker as he talks of and demonstrates S&M toys? Green plays that for humor, for sure, so it’s not our fault if we have such a reaction. And it’s for good reason, to remind us that everyone has eccentricities and experiences that can cause suspicion.

The points have been made before, albeit less intently, by other docs. The second and third installments of the Paradise Lost trilogy, for instance, lead us to believe certain people are the true committers of the child murders of Robin Hood Hills. That’s a cruel thing to do, mostly evident when part two’s implicated subject, John Mark Byers, is freed of suspicion in part three. The damage is done, and Byers continues to be publicly condemned.

Still, Casting JonBenet does questionable things, as well. The film exploits the murder of a little girl and the grieving Ramsey family to make its broader points. It also exploits the people actually in the doc and their quirks and tribulations for the same. And while the means to which it arrives at its points may be justifiable in the abstract, having us laugh and judge any of these people is still a big problem.

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The good and bad of the film is complicated, for sure, but also well-suited for a doc involving a case of a six-year-old beauty pageant princess. She was a part of something ugly that celebrates something beautiful. Likewise, the film is gross and discomforting yet is shot so impeccably. Its final moments, are as mesmerizing as they are disturbing. This is a film that can’t be entirely approved of nor detested but is to be equally respected and reproached.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.