Casting JonBenet

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
Casting JonBenet Movie Poster Image
Docudrama revisits notorious child murder; violence, sex.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 80 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

It's okay to speculate publicly, for mass distribution, about the motives and thoughts of people you don't know as long as a famous murder is the subject.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A mother might have killed her daughter, then covered it up by writing a ransom note and concocting a kidnapping. A father may have helped cover up his wife's or son's role in his daughter's murder.

 

Violence

The JonBenet story involves the brutal murder of a 6-year-old girl. Details of the murder are described. Ligature marks indicated that she was restrained. Strangulation marks were also found. She had a fractured skull, the wound created by a flashlight. An actor speaks of her drunk father burying a hatchet in her head when she was a child. It's suggested that Patsy killed her daughter in a rage and then wrote the odd, three-page ransom note, or that 10-year-old brother Burke killed her. It's reported that he had hit her with a golf club weeks before. An actor describes how he and childhood friends experimented with hanging each other, without any deaths resulting. 10-year-old actors are recorded bludgeoning watermelons with flashlights to determine if it would be possible for a child to fracture another child's skull. A man says he has cancer.

 

Sex

Child pornography and sexual abuse are mentioned as the possible background against which JonBenet met her demise. An actor reports that JonBenet's autopsy revealed trauma to the genital area, suggesting that she was abused sexually. It's mentioned that the police explained away that injury as the result of a bicycle accident. The actor suggests that the police were part of a cover-up of a child sex ring in Colorado that involved powerful people. An actor suggests that John Ramsey had raped his daughter. A police officer auditioning for the role of police officer reveals that he teaches sex education on the side and then demonstrates how to use sado-masochistic sex toys. He mentions that he personally enjoys "breast torture," and then describes some favorite methods. A child rapist claims to have murdered JonBenet.

 

Language

"T-ts," "pissed off."

Consumerism

The titillating aspects of the JonBenet tragedy -- about a beautiful, oddly adult-looking 6-year-old beauty pageant participant who wore lipstick and eye shadow -- are exploited here in the same way that the media exploited the case starting at the time of the murder and continuing to the present.

 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Patsy takes an unidentified prescription medication. Actors speak of abuse by alcoholic parents. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Casting JonBenet is a Netflix Original Movie that features a compilation of interviews with Colorado actors speculating on the ins and outs of the unsolved 1996 JonBenet Ramsey murder. That footage is intercut with the various actors re-enacting scenes from the lead-up to the murder and its aftermath. Police reports and autopsy information are mentioned, including the skull fracture and strangulation that killed the 6-year-old, as well as speculation about sexual child abuse. The actors themselves recall violent, alcohol-fueled moments from their pasts. A police officer auditioning to play a police officer describes sado-masochistic sexual practices. An actor describes how he and childhood friends experimented with hanging each other, without any deaths resulting. 10-year-old actors are recorded bludgeoning watermelons with flashlights to determine if it would be possible for a child to fracture another child's skull.

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What's the story?

In CASTING JONBENET, Australian director Kitty Green gathered Colorado actors, who seem to have a proprietary feeling about the murder that happened in their neighborhood, and uses audition and rehearsal footage as well as interviews of the actors opining about the murder to cobble together a combination of non-expert opinions and reenactment scenes from the tragic murder and its aftermath. Some actors say the murder was the biggest thing that ever happened in Boulder, Colorado. Actors recall events in their lives that they believe prepare them for their roles. One woke up to find his girlfriend dead in their bed. Another recalls being told her brother had died. Others wonder about the sanity of Patsy Ramsey and recall horrible childhood experiences involving their own abusive, alcoholic parents. Some speculate child pornography and sexual abuse played a role in the JonBenet murder. Without proof, some actors suggest that either mother Patsy or brother Burke murdered JonBenet. Many of the case's oddities are reviewed, including a false confession, the possible role of a Santa Claus impersonator, and the acting job that both John and Patsy might have done when making public statements about the murder. 

Is it any good?

It's difficult to see the point of this wandering exercise in exploitation. One wishes that this bizarre documentary/drama had raised the moral issue of the way JonBenet and other young pageant contestants are exploited and the way that the media have exploited her murder story for the last 20 years. Instead, Casting JonBenet just goes ahead and exploits it some more. Isn't putting young girls auditioning to play JonBenet in makeup and costume just as unsettling as putting JonBenet herself in the makeup and costumes? The movie does touch on anti-woman bias, but almost as a nagging and unavoidable side issue. Male and female actors alike give father John a pass on the murder, but believe Patsy did it. Some theorize that John might have had sex with his 6-year-old daughter, but that's just another view of how men hate and exploit women. Actors offer some sketchy information about the case, all of which seems to be based on the "expertise" that living in Colorado somehow bestows on them and, in some cases, on doing some research to win their individual roles.

But the theories they offer have no more value than those offered by gossipers we all hear at the office coffee machines. Did Patsy kill the girl because she had wet the bed? Was Patsy, a former pageant contender herself, homicidal because she was aging and jealous of her beautiful pageant queen daughter? Some actors report as facts information said to be from the police investigation and JonBenet's autopsy. Nothing in this part-nonfictional series of interviews and part-dramatic re-enactment of events differentiates between truth and speculation. The re-enactment of the night of the murder is certainly as speculative as the actors' thoughts on who might have killed the girl and why. Here's a bit more speculation: Given the nicely-shot, well-edited and competently scored re-enactment scenes that do make it into the movie, it feels as if writer-director Kitty Green might have run out of money sufficient to complete the picture and just intercut audition and interview footage to cobble together a feature-length something or other. In any case, whether the result was originally planned or improvised, this is a wonderful showcase of local talent. Serious, earnest actors who value their craft and, looking less like flawless Hollywood stars than like regular, everyday people, get the chance to show how good they are. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the reason the unsolved murder of a 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant two decades back still is a subject of interest for the press and filmmakers like the ones behind Casting JonBenet. Do you think the fact that she was blond, white, young, and pretty were factors determining the intense public interest in the case? 

  • Why do you think crime stories get so much attention in the media? Are they easier to understand than complex, long-term tragedies such as poverty and racism? 

  • How effective do you think the mechanism of intercutting dramatic scenes with interviews is with regard to adding to the understanding of this case?

Movie details

For kids who love true stories

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