The lights go up on a row of chairs. Each one is occupied by a young girl, wearing a dress with the stars and stripes on it. Then the first lines, delivered straight down the barrel of the camera: “Hello. I’m Hannah, and I’m auditioning for the role of JonBenét Ramsay. Do you know who killed JonBenet Ramsay?” The main concept of Casting JonBenet, the latest in a number of Netflix original documentaries, is neatly summarised in this opening to what is an innovative documentary. Kitty Green’s use of the idea of the casting of local actors for the reconstruction of an unsolved murder allows her to tell the different competing stories that have been posited in the years since the murder of child beauty pageant star JonBenét Ramsay shocked America on Christmas Day 1996.
The documentary establishes the different narratives suggested by police and investigators using a series of different actors for each part. Each actor, therefore, is seemingly tied to their version of events, which play out simultaneously on one set in the documentary’s gripping climax. But what Casting JonBenet does best is getting into the mindset of the characters at play in JonBenét Ramsay’s death: the overbearing mother, withdrawn father, younger brother jealous of the attention his sister received. The ‘audition’ tapes make up most of the documentary, which emphasise the actors’ need to get under the skin of the Ramsays, who were well known by the American public after the attention that the murder received. Particularly when casting Patsy Ramsay, JonBenét’s mother, the actors discuss how they dressed for the role based on Patsy’s appearances on TV, with the red roll-neck jumper and pearl necklace almost ubiquitous for the women seeking the role. One of the actors recounts her choice of earrings and outfit based on Patsy Ramsay’s appearance on Larry King – all of this serves to remind the audience of the blurred boundary between reality and reconstruction that Casting JonBenet relies on.
The film is arguably more a focus on the state of the public response to the murder than to the crime itself
The phenomenon that allows Green to examine the Ramsay case using this technique of using actors – often locals who knew the Ramsay family and people involved in the case – to tell the story of JonBenét is the mass popular appeal and attention that the case grabbed in the U.S. media. Although the argument could go that the documentary itself is part of the media circus surrounding the case; without it, the use of actors to re-enact and establish the competing suggestions of the timeline of the murder would not be so successful – it is because of the infamy of the case that the actors can portray the characters so well. This attempt to mirror the human nature of the Ramsay family is seen at its most visceral and most shocking when the prospective actors for John Ramsay are recorded performing finding her body in the cellar – each actor approaches it differently, some shocked into silence, some with a hammy melodrama that stands in contrast with the clinical description of the scene by the actors beforehand.
However, the film is arguably more a focus on the state of the public response to the murder than to the crime itself. The documentary offers more than just an innovative approach to true-crime, but also represents the superficiality of the beauty pageant culture that made the JonBenét Ramsay case so attractive to the media. This interpretation can be seen in the documentary’s final scene: to the strains of Bert Parks, singing “There she is, Miss America…” the actor playing JonBenét struts into centre stage in her beauty pageant finery, standing under the spotlight before the screen cuts to black. The grotesque near-sexualisation of the girl under the lights – the literal ‘Miss America’ – seems to poke holes in the media reaction to the case, exposing the state of America under the harshest of light. The superficial obsession with image is thrown under the spotlight, literally. The emphasis on the beauty pageant culture, and on Patsy Ramsay as a ‘stage mom’ figure living vicariously through her daughter, demonstrates a clear focus on the superficial beauty pageant culture in America.
Casting JonBenet focuses on telling the competing narratives of JonBenét Ramsay’s murder – and does so successfully by intertwining the stories using different actors. In the final scene, a dozen Patsy and Johns occupy the set, setting all the supposed stories in the same space. Although some of the use of dark humour is jarring and sometimes frankly inappropriate, there is one thing that must be admitted about Casting JonBenet. It finds an ingenious way of making a true crime documentary without establishing an objective ‘truth.’ This juxtaposition of competing truths makes for an engaging, shocking, and at times disturbing exploration of the frontier between truth and untruth, and makes a profound comment on the state of American society.