Yesterday’s media circus is today’s documentary.
It has, recently, seemed like all the stories that once dominated our tabloids are now cramming our screens. O.J. Simpson, Anthony Weiner, Amanda Knox. It’s as though we’re haunted by the ghost of nightly-news past.
That’s not say that many of the films haven’t been good. Ezra Edelman’s “O.J. Made in America” was a brilliant, expansive Tolstoy novel of a film. And, certainly, our media coverage and our collective slavish attention to these cases deserve continual reckoning — even if some of these films trade on the same sensationalism that got the presses humming in the first place.
Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet,” a film that debuts on Netflix on Friday, returns us to the tragic, unsolved case of the child pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, the blonde and blue-eyed 6-year-old found dead in the basement of her family’s Boulder, Colorado, home on December 26, 1996.
The case and its bizarre backdrop — the world of child pageantry — brought endless speculation over her death and who might have done it. Theories abounded over her parents John and Patsy Ramsey, and even their son, Burke, who was 9-years-old at the time.
“Casting JonBenet,” however, is not a procedural or an investigation, and it makes no attempt to answer that sad, lurid whodunit from the ’90s. Instead, it uses the Ramsey story as a prism for documenting our rabid rumor-mongering and far-away judgments of personalities hoisted onto a media stage. It is, oddly enough, about acting.
Without comment or introduction, “Casting JonBenet” sits us down with a number of Colorado actors who are ostensibly auditioning for a drama based on the case. Speaking into the camera, often in costume, they relate their presumptions about the case and the motivations of their would-be characters. Most are to play either Patsy or John.
All have their suspicions, most pure gossip, others more reflective. The details of the case, including the lengthy ransom note found in the home, leave plenty of room for theories of all kinds. Given the circumstances, one participant notes wisely, “Any theory in this is kind of cracked.”
It’s a clever premise, but maybe not one that leads in profound directions. That was also an issue with another recent film that attempted to use acting as a method for finding a deeper understanding about an old media sensation. In Antonio Campos’ “Kate Plays Christine,” the director followed one actress’ attempts to get into the head of Christine Chubbuck, the 1970s TV reporter who committed suicide on the air.
Green’s film is simpler than Campos’, but it arrives somewhere more genuinely moving. Gradually, as the actors get closer to their roles, they begin finding empathy for the Ramseys. They go, tenderly, from hearsay to sympathy, from hypotheses of child pornography rings to speaking about their own related challenges in life. One woman speaks about being sexually abused as a girl. Another talks of alcoholic parents. A man talks about his battle with cancer.
Green culminates “Casting JonBenet” by filling a soundstage of rooms modeled after the Ramseys’ house with the many actors all at once performing their version of events. It’s a small but affecting moment of compassion, acted out long after all the drama disappeared from the tabloids.
“Casting JonBenet” is an unrated Netflix release. Running time: 80 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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