Time Out says
A new documentary finds a wholly original way into an unthinkable crime.
Here’s what you’re likely expecting from any film that plunges into the still-unsolved case of murdered beauty-pageant princess JonBenét Ramsey: squawking police radios, grainy video footage of suburban Colorado (where such horrors could never happen), the stream of psychologists and detectives speculating on motives. And here’s what you get from Casting JonBenet: An unidentified woman admits to the camera that she’s usually cast as the mom “or the bitch.” Another actor, ruggedly handsome, says he often gets compared to Jeff Bridges. One other, dressed as a cop, tells us of his night job as a sex educator. A parade of little boys tries to smash a watermelon with a flashlight. The melon is supposed to be JonBenét’s head; one of the kids can’t help but pop a bit of red fruit into his mouth, smiling at the carnage he’s made.
Who the fuck are these people? They’re not the usual suspects, and that’s what makes Casting JonBenet such an off-kilter, thrilling and ultimately insightful exploration. Structured largely out of auditions for what we presume will be dramatic re-creations of the Christmas 1996 crime, the movie sometimes plays like a Christopher Guest mockumentary. (Any laughs, even incidental ones, are welcome with this film.)
It will dawn on you pretty quickly that the doc’s format, experimental and icky at first, has a weird resonance with the pageants that so dominated JonBenét’s short life: the nervous interviews and awkward smiles that her mother, Patsy, also was familiar with, first as a participant, later as a stage parent. But then, these speakers get personal. All of them live in Colorado, we learn. Many have memories from the event 20 years ago, some of them shockingly germane. (One player speaks of defending his girlfriend, a suspect, during the trial.) As this chorus of Rashomon-like perspectives (alternative facts?) begins to snowball, you realize that telling this story may be as important as solving it.
Kitty Green, the film’s inspired director, tried out this idea with an eight-minute 2015 short about Ukrainian ice-skater Oksana Baiul. But the results she gets this time are profound. Desperately, these people all want the truth—as well as the gig—and that tension is what makes Casting JonBenet provocative. What about authority? That notion, usually so essential to documentary filmmaking, is surprisingly detachable. And when Green’s re-creations do occur, in a flurry that will wreck you, it’s impossible not to think that, at long last, we’re bearing witness. We’re in the room, with all the suspects and theories. The killer is in there too, somewhere.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf