Casting JonBenet’s True Story is Barely About Crime

At about the 40 minute mark of Casting JonBenet (directed by Kitty Green) a man in a Santa suit whips out the following introduction: “You get addicted to the love. Someone puts on a red suit once, twice, and it’s addictive than heroin. I’m sure.”

The line has nearly nothing to do with the JonBenet story at the film’s center, but neither does most of the film, instead focusing on these people’s reaction to a horrific story without a conclusion that most everyone within the film (except for the child actors) remembers. It’s about how people build empathy and build connections. Those are important tools for actors, but the cast members don’t focus overly on their acting abilities or technique. It’s not because they’re actors that they have opinions and emotional investment to this story, but just because that’s what people do when confronted with a true story for enough months.

Casting JonBenet ostensibly focuses on a “behind the scenes” of a true crime film about the Ramsays. Beginning in talking heads we watch as about ten women and ten men audition for the roles of Patsy and John, JonBenet’s parents. They read portions of scripts, but mostly they discuss their own connection to the case (they are all Boulder residents). As the film goes more and more sort of leaks out, as the actors get more comfortable in front of the camera. Not too surprisingly everyone has a theory as to what really happened. And not too surprisingly the actors inadvertently reveal more about their lives as well.

I generally avoid true crime shows and movies. Though I ended up watching (and loving) The People v. O.J. Simpson, I still was hesitant about it. Sensationalizing a horrific story (and it has to be horrific for it to grab our attention) sort of trivializes the people involved. We sort of forget that this was a real life snuffed out. Just making money off of someone else’s personal tragedy feels icky to me. What’s more, true crime stories are often forced to take a stance. The creator brings a bias and frames the story in a specific way – the way they thought it went down. I’ve never listened to Serial but whenever I hear snippets all I can think is that Sarah Koenig is trying to prove this particular boy innocent (and before I face the blow back, I’ll reiterate I’ve never actually seen it and I’m sure my perception is at least somewhat off). The People v. O.J. Simpson did a markedly strong job of not landing itself too heavily on one side of the fence (even more remarkable because of the landslide of evidence pointing a pretty particular way). Casting JonBenet struggles with the bias and sensationalization another way: by staring it directly in the face.

At a tight hour and twenty it seems almost paradoxical to call the film “sprawling” but that’s how it felt. There are so many interesting little nuggets it’s difficult to pin any one down and chase it. While the film does a strong job of confronting bias and sensationalization, it isn’t interested in blindly turning away from anything someone brings to the table. A particular audition goes off the rails as the actor demonstrates how to best use a number of sex toys. Later he uses his expertise to form an opinion about a particular part of the case.

The film also drills into how actors use their own life experience to bring a character to life. As I said earlier, the actors end up revealing quite a bit about their own life. They all have biases towards the case, and their own theories. It is fascinating to then see as they bring those histories and theories to creating and inhabiting their characters. Watching someone you know thinks Patsy Ramsay killed her child play Patsy Ramsay as she denies that very accusation is a trippy situation. One woman playing Patsy talks about yelling at her son at a young age, and how she still feels guilty about it. Later the camera lingers on her as she sobs and sobs on the bathroom within the set of the Ramsay house the crew has built. It’s a strange layered truth, and again speaks to the way we are able to cast ourselves onto other people. The audience empathizes with the actor as she empathizes with a character. The layers are deep, and the film doesn’t shy away from that either. After a long dolly shot tracking across the set we jerkily cut back further, revealing the entire set as well as the dolly track. The film is constantly observing it’s own observation.

It’s not a perfect film. With so much packed in the fleet running time feels like it could have been padded out more. In particular I think we could have seen more scenes from the actual recreation. As the previous paragraph exemplifies I found the juxtaposition of the actor and the character they play effective (not to mention the fact the film within the film looks pretty damn good, at least from a visual standpoint). Even watching different performers play the same character, repeating the same line over and over again, would have been something I could have used more of (the film uses this technique a number of times and it is again fascinating to see what different people from different backgrounds bring to the same exact material). I’m curious if there is any plans for the footage they shot. But, as with the JonBenet case, maybe we will never know, and we can only speculate what the film within a film would have really been like.

Of course, the sleek running time as well as the Netflix release have an added benefit. I don’t think this is a perfect film, but it an engrossing and fascinating one. It is a daring film. I do think it’s a film worth your while, and I invite you to sit down and watch it.

Casting JonBenet cast eight out of ten stars.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • The Santa section could have probably honestly been cut, but I can’t imagine how they’d be able to do that one they’d filmed it. Even better than his speculation on love, the Professional Santa talks about the importance of background checks before assuring the audience all the Professional Santas he mingles with have gotten their history looked at.
  • It’s a little difficult to parse out how “in” on the style of the documentary the actors are, but one would have to assume they’re pretty in on it, especially in the later sections once they’re all brought to set together. Still, would love more information on that.
  • The film within the film looks a lot like the TV show Fargo.
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