Unravelling McFamily-sized myths

Luke Goodsell

“Do you know who killed JonBenét Ramsey?” asks a little girl of no more than six or seven, dolled up for Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s new documentary to resemble the murdered beauty queen who has fascinated the public for 20 years. So entrenched is the slain child princess in popular myth, this child may as well be asking for strawberry ice cream. Struck, strangled and probably sexually molested, six-year-old pageant star JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in her family’s Boulder, Colorado home at Christmastime 1996, and a mysterious kidnapping note left inside the house.

It was the perfect all-American tragedy—the ideal McFamily unravelling against the spectre of potential domestic violence. The unsolved case gripped the world, its surreal backdrop of sexualised children proving irresistible to armchair voyeurs. Although the case has been assayed countless times in print and true crime TV, Green (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, 2013) proposes a new angle: what would the murder look like performed by actors drawn exclusively from the Ramseys’ hometown?

Produced by and distributed on Netflix and developed through Film Victoria, Screen Australia and the Sundance Documentary Institute, Casting JonBenét ostensibly establishes itself as an interrogation of performance. Evoking two decades of small-screen spectatorship with widescreen and 4:3 ratios, the film is structured around talking-head interviews with groups of actors enlisted to play John and Patsy Ramsey, their two children, local police and townspeople in a movie dramatising the events.

Green frames her subjects with ample overhead space, as if to allow their thoughts to escape and mingle with the wallpaper, their clipped soundbites comprising a tapestry of theories that run from obvious conjecture to unexpected personal confession. These interviews are intercut with the finished film—a slickly tasteful recreation suffocating in amber cinematography and a maudlin piano score.

Hannah Cagwin as JonBenet Ramsey

Green’s high-concept gambit recalls her short film The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul (2015), and inevitably Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016), a fascinating ficto-documentary that followed actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepared for the role of suicidal news anchor Christine Chubbuck. The latter film’s interrogation of performance anxiety and ethical queasiness—tending the desire to re-enact tragedy—remains beyond the reach of Casting JonBenét, though the film seems to set itself up for similar revelations. “In order to act you need to tell the truth,” announces one of the local cast, before calling John and Patsy’s public response “one of the poorest acting jobs I’ve ever seen.” Unlike Sheil, the mostly amateur performers here aren’t self-conscious enough to yield actorly insights on motivation or technique, instead blurring limited craft with the personal in discomfiting ways.

Despite the whiff of condescension towards its subjects, it’s here that Casting JonBenét reveals itself as a compelling portrait of those peripherally affected by the crime. We meet an actor whose brother was murdered, another who experienced sexual harassment and one dealing, as did Patsy, with recently discovered cancer: each experience refracted through memories of and associations with the Ramsey case. The interviews range from unpleasantly exploitative to weirdly amusing: one woman gruesomely imagines the death of her own child to summon showy tears, while a burly, goateed man who bills himself as a “fugitive recovery agent and sex educator” demonstrates his whipping skills before interrupting the interview to take a client’s call. Others cross over into the anecdotally goofy: portraying a Santa in JonBenét’s story, a fat guy in a red suit describes his yuletide vocation as “more addictive than heroin.” Give us a movie about him.

Casting JonBenét riffs on the usual true crime dramatisations and cinema’s wider license to construct whichever reality best serves as entertainment, and Green’s final bravura sequence cleverly transforms her actors’ theories into a mini cacophony of speculation. The overlapping thoughts—“Patsy was definitely involved,” “I think he’s innocent,” “Talk about putting a woman in a box”—eventually blur into a chattering simulacrum of life, as Green’s camera tracks across the various versions of the parents and their kids at home like Wes Anderson fetishising a dollhouse. When the camera pulls back, in an almost Godardian jape, to reveal the sound stage, the sight of multiple actors inhabiting this meretricious diorama is as satisfying as any ultimate “truth”—the film-within-the-film’s supposed realism rendered as pointless and hollow as a slapdash Lifetime movie.

When we finally glimpse JonBenét in her filmic performance—a tiny ballerina with angel wings, pirouetting in a sickly-lit corridor to the sound of Johnny Desmond’s “Miss America”—she’s become an elusive, unknowable icon, born of rote suburban violence but forever enshrined in the pop cosmos. Here, Green’s film finally ascends to a level that does her subject justice, equal parts chintzy and chilling.

Casting JonBenét, writer, producer, director Kitty Green, co-producers Scott Macaulay and James Schamus, music Nathan Larson, cinematographer Michael Latham, editor Davis Coombe, distributor Netflix, 2017

Filmmaker Kitty Green

10 May 2017
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