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