Kitty Green grew up in Australia watching American television. Although her favorite sitcoms presented the US as idyllic and family-oriented, her favorite show taught her the exact opposite could just as easily be true. After six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in Boulder, Colorado, on Christmas Eve of 1996, a young Green became one of the millions of people around the world transfixed by the ensuing investigation.
"This case punctured that image for me," she says. "I was 11 or 12 when it was on TV, and as a kid I was obsessed with it."
That obsession apparently followed her into adulthood. Green, now 32, is the director behind a new JonBenét movie premiering today on Netflix. Like American Crime Story and Made in America did for the O.J. Simpson saga last year, Casting JonBenét introduces the story of the Ramseys to a generation who missed the original media spectacle around it. The film is a hybrid of documentary and scripted narrative––a CliffsNotes version of an important piece of Americana.
Part of the reason Casting JonBenét defies easy categorization is because Green has never felt comfortable in either genre. She says that, as a young woman, it was hard to be at ease around the large gaffers and grips that typically populate huge cinematic productions; after making a documentary about a feminist group in the Ukraine in 2013, she missed the control she felt while working on narrative films at school in Melbourne. To solve her dilemma, Green pioneered a liminal genre in 2015 with Casting Oksana Baiul, a short film about Ukrainian women who derived feelings of strength from the titular gold-winning figure skater.
While it's tempting to suggest that Green is riffing on the JonBenét case as part of a larger, multi-work meditation on how different societies treat their young female performers, she says that any thematic similarity is merely a coincidence. Instead, she says that JonBenét is more accurately described as a meta commentary on the community members who were affected by having an infamous true crime story take place in their hometown. For instance, the film starts off with a scene of matriarch Patsy Ramsey dialing 9/11 to report the murder but then transitions into a montage of casting tapes. Each prospective Patsy talks into the camera about her personal connection to the case––whether it be experience as a pageant contestant, as a teacher with students who knew JonBenét, or simply as a mother.
Perhaps it's to be expected that the acted bits seem straight out of a Lifetime movie. After all, the people trying out for the film are not professional Hollywood actors by any means, but largely blue-collar workers like grocery store managers or cops. What's interesting is not whether or not the actors are being convincing in their portrayals of the crime's players, but rather how their lived experiences inform those portrayals.
Green told me that she spent 15 minutes with each actor who showed up to her casting call pitching the premise of the film: There was a three-page treatment and no script. Casting tapes would be used in the film. Multiple actors would be playing each role. It was an experiment––a sort of choose-your-own adventure meets community playhouse––and would they like to participate?
She attributes the almost-universal enthusiasm to the notion that Americans love to talk in general. Amplify that by the fact that nothing's really going on in Boulder, and she had people talking about their experiences with murdered family members, molestation, and more within the span of a 45-minute interview.
"They've been living in the shadow of this crime for 20 years and they're a little sick of the media coverage, so they've tried to make sense of it themselves," she explained. "So it was nice to have someone ask them about their experiences and how they've found closure. I think they found it a little cathartic."
Historically, there have been two camps of people who follow the JonBenét case: those who think she was killed by a home intruder and others who that thinks a family member did it. Both theories are deftly explored by Green without her giving obvious preference to either one. In a later scene with the Patsys, a series of actresses reads from The Death of Innocence, which is the memoir co-written by both JonBenét's parents. One stops reading practically mid-sentence when confronting a self-aggrandizing passage about Patsy's past as a former beauty queen. Another reads the same part but then thinks aloud that JonBenét herself clearly wanted to participate in the contests and wasn't the victim of a so-called pageant mom trying to relive her glory days. Montages of people contradicting each other's theories are woven throughout and become more complicated and compelling as each actor or actress reveals more about their backstory.
One theory about the murder is that JonBenét's older brother Burke accidentally committed the murder and that the parents covered it up. Green gets the kids trying out for Burke's role to talk about teasing their siblings and intercuts that with actors trying out for patriarch John talking about dangerous games they played as kids—games that could have easily resulted in her accidental death. Later, the little boys hit a watermelon with a flashlight until it bursts––and the preceding interviews make this the most disturbing and clever portion of the film.
The film ends with a scene of the Ramseys on the night of the murder with different sets of actors playing out several possible scenarios all at once. The camera pans across them, giving the viewer an experience that's not unlike attending a performance of an immersive play like Sleep No More. While it's a wonder that Netflix picked up such a bizarre, genre-defying movie, it's perhaps even more insane when you contemplate the amount of work the company's legal team must have gone through in order to make sure that the film didn't result in a libel suit. After all, when CBS aired The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey last September, Burke Ramsey sued the network for $750 million in a case that's still working its way through circuit court in Wisconsin. In that docuseries, investigators hired a random 10-year-old boy to hit a pigskin-wig contraption with a flashlight to prove a child could have committed the murder.
Green says that it wasn't hard to not promote a specific theory, though, and that's because she genuinely doesn't have one. Although she read every book and watched every film she could get a hand on before going into production, she claims she went in with an open mind. And even after talking to more than 200 people in Boulder about who they thought killed JonBenét, she said that she's still no more closer to the truth than when she was 11 and watching the investigation happen in real time.
"There's not enough evidence to know who did it, so you have to live with this uncertainty and ambiguity," she says. "And that's what the film became about."
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