Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review: Casting JonBenet

The case of JonBenet Ramsey has been a life-long interest of mine. I was nine years old at the time of her death, December 25, 1996. In my memory we were the same age, but that's not true. JonBenet was six years old when she lost her life. Nine and six can feel like miles apart, but even then I knew we were just little children. No matter what age it was a terrifying prospect that not even I could be guaranteed safety.

Throughout the years the case has come in and out of the spotlight. It flared up again in 2006 when John Mark Karr falsely claimed to have sexually assaulted and murdered JonBenet, most likely to be extradited from Thailand - a country where he was facing criminal charges for other sex crimes.

John Mark Karr

Within the past year the case got new life again when CBS aired the docu-series The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, basically pinning the crime on her older brother Burke. The response to this program was the infamous Dr. Phil interview with Burke Ramsey, denying the allegations that he killed his little sister, but managed to meet everyone's expectations of him being a bit creepy.

Burke Ramsey

Hot off the heals of The Case of... is the Netflix documentary Casting JonBenet. Anything JonBenet is going to be a must see for almost anyone. Millennials and Gen-Xers alike are hungry for answers, and in a creepy way, nostalgia. Younger viewers who had not yet been born or were just babies in 1996 (not Millennials, but I don't know what their generation is labeled yet) will be drawn in by the bizarre nature of the crime, and the current fad of true crime programming.

John and Patsy Ramsey 

Actors playing John and Patsy Ramsey 

My first impressions of Casting were that the cinematography was top notch, and the lack of a common voice as narration was creative. My preferences for documentary tend to lean toward the non-narration style; documentaries that only use audio from news clips, or that use interviews without the interviewer's voice. In this case the narration was facilitated by groups of auditioning actors, giving their impressions of the roles they were cast to play as well as reading their scripts of classic dialog from the case.

We have a group of Patsy Ramseys, the brunette southern belle, former beauty pageant winner and distraught mother. There is a group of grey-haired John Ramseys, the sometimes suspicious and also tragic father. A handful of young boys with a wide range of acting abilities are poised to represent Burke Ramsey, and some others set to play detectives, John Mark Karr, and an unnerving Santa impersonator (who looks mighty suspicious, though he did have an alibi).

Of course there is the parade of JonBenets. We have a limited view on who JonBenet was. There are some rare home videos, mostly of her pageants were she primarily smiles and poses. The photographs of her hardly differ from the moving images. They don't tell us who she is really is, and we know that there must be more to this little girl than the hair and makeup. There must be. At the same time she had so little time on Earth, it makes one wonder who she would have become if she had the opportunity. In this particular story, JonBenet plays a smaller role than the other characters.

One of the little girls playing JonBenet, the first one we see, wielding the clapperboard and acting precocious, asks the question, "Do you know who killed JonBenet?" It's a jarring opening line. First of all, it's coming out of the mouth of a little girl. She appears to be asking the casting director off screen, but she could also be directing the question rhetorically toward the audience. Is she asking because she wants to know the fate of her character, or is she asking us to consider in our own minds who we suspect. Second of all, one can't help but feel a need to protect this little girl. If she were in front of you asking, do you want to tell her the truth - that we don't know? It feels like a failure to her and other little girls of any generation that we have not solved this murder. She asks and I wish I could tell her, and I wish that she didn't have to ask.

The rest of the cast narrates this legendary crime in a multitude of ways. They act out the lines that are given to them; crying over a blanket in the basement as we can imagine John did, or screaming over the phone to 911 as Patsy did. They explain to the camera how they feel about their "character"; the impression of their personality from research and from knowing the case from the media. They tell anecdotes about where they were when the crime happened, some of them being native to Boulder, CO. They reveal if they believe their own character did the crime or not. They also explain why they relate to the case, from being victims of abuse, to having family members who were murdered. Through their own pain in unrelated incidents, we gain a better understanding of how complicated this case truly is.

A la The Nightmare, another documentary from Netflix that I quite enjoyed, the concept of a documentary reenactment is laid bare; exposing the set dressing, walls, and lights. It exposes the actors - every single one auditioning; their flaws and opinions. Some don't look a thing like Jon or Patsy, making comments about how they can wear a wig if they have to. You can't help but judge them the entire time, trying to decide who's going to get the part. But in the end it's never settled to just one actor. This isn't actually an audition. By the end of this documentary we don't end up casting the roles and we definitely don't come close to solving the murder. The physiological effect this case has on these actors and the public in general is the real subject matter.

In a final culminating scene that moved me to tears, every actor is on set and acts out a scene at the same time. It's as if time has folded in on itself. They argue in the bedroom, cry alone on stairs, or in the bathroom. It's the whole drama of life and what this family - particularly the parents - were possibly going through before and after the murder. We see a failing marriage, we see a grieving family, we see confusion, turmoil, and numbness. I admit I doubted some of these actor's abilities at first, but this scene with all of them working in tandem on top of each other was brilliant, and showed how they could be so focused in their craft. It was a really beautifully engineered moment. No single actor could portray their lives alone.

Then JonBenet has her moment, not completely based in reality. The film closes with her in full pageant regalia. Dramatically lit and angelic, she sashays to the Miss America theme down the hallway of her home. We do not know exactly how she died that night, but we remember her the way we want to.

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