JonBenét Ramsey's case is a captivating one. In 1996, the six-year-old was murdered in her wealthy family's Boulder home on Christmas night. The facts of the case were like something out of a best-selling thriller—a bizarre ransom note, a bungled investigation, a family under suspicion—and JonBenét was a fascinating character in her own right. She was a child beauty pageant years before Toddlers & Tiaras, and pictures of her dolled up in full pageant makeup and sparkly costumes graced magazine covers for months after her death.
The case is also (in)famously unsolved. So it's not particularly surprising that more than two decades later, there's still a collective fascination with how JonBenét died. Last fall, two separate TV specials aired which focused on unraveling the case's mysteries. CBS's The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey even went so far as to conclude that JonBenét's brother, Burke Ramsey (who was nine at the time of her murder) had likely killed her. But don't expect such definitive answers (or even much in the way of fleeting guesses) from Netflix's Casting JonBenét. The film, from Australian director Kitty Green, has been described as a documentary about the famous case—but that's not totally accurate.
For Casting JonBenét, Green traveled to Boulder and put out an open casting call, seeking amateur and semi-professional local actors willing to come in and audition to portray key players in the case—most importantly John and Patsy Ramsey, but also Burke, a suspect who dressed as Santa Claus, and even JonBenét herself.
The bulk of Casting JonBenét focuses on locals who believe they are auditioning for the roles of John and Patsy. Between delivering lines, the actors share anecdotes about their connections to the case and speculate with their own theories. The result is, at moments, difficult to watch.
Basically, we're witnessing gossip in action. The kind of salacious, biting gossip that crops up in any tight-knit community. It's the kind of stuff that neighbors loudly whisper to one another while standing at the ends of their driveways. It's authentic and honest, but uncomfortable. And because these auditions are the film, Casting JonBenét is not a documentary about its titular victim, but a disturbing look at the community that, two decades later, is still obsessed with her death.
"Casting JonBenét is not a documentary about its titular victim, but a disturbing look at the community that, two decades later, is still obsessed with her death."
Casting JonBenét doesn't deal much in facts, which makes it an odd documentary to say the least. It does deal in truth though, which is what makes it engaging. It's impossible to say which, if any, of the theories/memories shared by the actors are accurate, but their experiences of the case are true. In fact, some of the film's most honest and gripping moments aren't even about the case. As the actors dig deep, mining their personal lives for experiences to inform their performances, they come to empathize with a family they were ruthlessly gossiping about just moments before.
If you're looking for another investigation into JonBenét Ramsey's murder, Casting JonBenét is not the film for you. It offers no definitive conclusion about what happened that night. In fact, it does the opposite—its beautifully orchestrated final scene feels constructed to explicitly make the point that we will never know what happened. But, if you're interested in a nuanced (albeit, at times invasive) look into how a crime affects the people on the periphery, then it's a worthy addition to your Netflix queue.