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Netflix's Casting JonBenét isn't a true crime story. It's something better.

Director Kitty Green didn’t want to make just another docudrama about the sensational 1996 murder case.

A girl auditions to play JonBenét Ramsey, who died in 1996.
Auditioning to play JonBenét Ramsey, who died in 1996.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The thing to know going into Casting JonBenét is that you won’t get any answers. And according to director Kitty Green, that’s exactly the point.

The sensational, decades-old case of the 6-year-old beauty queen found murdered in her family’s home on Christmas night in 1996 is a popular subject for filmmakers looking to capitalize on the current taste for “true crime” documentaries and docudramas. After all, the story dominated tabloids for months, and was almost as famous as the O.J. Simpson case — which itself got two treatments last year, one docudrama and one documentary — and still pops up in headlines sometimes, two decades later.

But Green didn’t want to make a docudrama or a straightforward documentary. She had something else in mind.

Casting JonBenét is about Boulder, Colorado, more than the Ramsey case

Green is an Australian documentarian with one feature under her belt: the 2013 documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel, for which she lived with and documented the feminist protest group FEMEN, known for its topless protests. The film won a number of AACTAs — Australia’s answer to the Oscars — including Best Documentary Feature.

To follow-up the project, Green made a seven-minute short film called The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, which won the jury prize for a short documentary film at Sundance in 2014. The film toyed with what it’s like to audition to play an iconic figure (Baiul, who won the gold medal for figure skating at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, was the first Olympic champion for an independent Ukraine) and told the story of a divided country through the girls who came out for the part.

A line of little girls dressed as JonBenet Ramsey.
The casting call for JonBenét Ramsey.

That idea was the seed for what became Casting JonBenét. “There's so many JonBenét Ramsey TV specials, with actors playing her mother and father,” Green told me. “I'm always thinking, how do you play Patsy Ramsey if you don't know if she's guilty or innocent? How do you approach that role? I basically wanted to focus on the community.”

In Casting JonBenét, that community is Boulder, Colorado, where the Ramseys lived — “It's nestled in the mountains; It's picture perfect, an American, idyllic sort of beautiful suburban area. It's gorgeous,” Green says. To make the film, she went to live in Boulder for about a year, flying her Australian crew in and out every few months to shoot. Boulder itself makes an appearance in the film, in shots flying over snow-covered trees and winding roads. “It's kind of a little bit incongruous, just the beauty of it — it brings out the horror of what happened there,” she says.

Casting JonBenét takes shape as a series of auditions

But the focus of Casting JonBenét isn’t the landscape of Boulder; it’s the people. Green put out a casting call in the Boulder area, inviting people to audition for any role in the Ramsey case. Once they arrived on the set, Green explained that this wouldn’t be quite the movie they were expecting.

“Before we dressed them all up, I'd give them a 15-minute spiel about how I envisioned the film coming together. Which is difficult, because it's not like any other film, so it's not really easy to describe!” Green says.

She told them that the casting material would be used in the film — that anything they said on camera during the auditions might end up in the final cut, so they should be careful about what they say. “It's an experiment, basically,” she told them. “And will you jump down the rabbit hole with us?”

To her surprise, Green says, virtually all of them agreed. The results are quite remarkable.

A scene from Casting JonBenet
Getting the costume ready.

Most of Casting JonBenét comes from these audition tapes, with people who auditioned to play JonBenét’s mother Patsy and her father John talking on camera about their connection to the characters. Some of them lived nearby when the murder happened. Some of them talk about their personal connections to the story, speaking freely about difficult losses in their own lives. One woman lost three children. One was abused as a child. One man woke up to discover that his girlfriend had died during the night.

They also speculate about the people involved in the case and about what happened — not just with the Ramsey family, but several others, including John Mark Karr, the pedophile who falsely claimed he killed JonBenét, and a Santa Claus who’d been at a party at the Ramseys’ who some think may have climbed in JonBenét’s window.

There are definitely moments of levity throughout the film, which are often shot through with something like gallows humor. For instance, a series of 10-year-old boys audition to play Burke, JonBenét’s brother, who some suspect of killing his sister, and his parents of covering for him. After someone says a boy of that size wouldn’t be capable of the crime, we watch a bunch of them try to bash a baby watermelon to pieces with a large blunt rod. It’s very funny, till you realize what it’s implying.

Casting JonBenét is about the way we think about sensationalized crime stories

The levity, though, is expertly layered into something more revealing. Casting JonBenét makes the case that the way we think and talk about sensationalized crime cases is deeply influenced by our own experiences — and it calls into question the real possibility of ever arriving together at something like the “truth.”

The level of personal disclosure in the auditions is pretty astounding, with people admitting to startlingly personal details as they discuss the case. Green was surprised by the kind of intimate information people were willing to disclose, too. “Americans are more open than Australians,” she said. “I could never have made this in Australia. We’re much more private people.”

But, she notes, people wanted to talk. “There’s something about the fact that these people have lived in the shadow of this crime for 20 years, and haven’t really been able to escape it,” she says. “I think a lot of them found it quite cathartic to talk about their own connection to [the case], or their experience with it, or their own impressions or presumptions.”

Those presumptions and impressions lead to a wide variety of conclusions about what actually happened, some of which Green dramatizes through scenes that look more cinematic, and in which the actors actually play the characters. But Green didn’t make a movie that recreates the Ramseys’ story. She made a movie about the challenges of making a docudrama. And she wanted the audience to come away with more questions than answers.

A recreation of a scene with Patsy Ramsey during the auditions in Casting JonBenet.
A recreation of a scene with Patsy Ramsey during the auditions in Casting JonBenét.

“How do you deal with an unsolved case?” Green asks. “We won't know that answer to this. There's not enough evidence to convict anybody, so we're in the dark, basically. How do you deal with having more questions than answers? How do you deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt? That, to me, was really fascinating.”

In many of her recreated scenes, you can see a piece of equipment or misplaced set dressing in the background. That was a deliberate move designed to remind viewers — many of whom are likely used to watching docudramas that strive for realism — that this is just a movie, and movies aren’t the events themselves; they’re recreations of events, and subject to interpretation.

In Casting JonBenét, every theory is the truth

At the end of the film, most of the actors are on a movie set, dressed to look like the interior of a suburban house — the Ramseys’ house. There are about a dozen women playing Patsy and a dozen men playing John, and they’re all simultaneously acting out versions of what could have happened as the camera goes by. That scene, Green says, was almost entirely improvised.

“There were rules and restrictions, but they were free to bring their own emotional stories and connections to the case to this reenactment,” Green says. Given each of their stories, she left it up to the actors to decide how they would interpret the events of that horrible evening.

A scene from Casting JonBenet
Lots of Patsys.

The result is quite astounding, especially since many of the actors aren’t professionals. Some of them weep, fight, or yell. It’s like watching all of the possibilities at once. And in a sense, since we’ll likely never really know what happened, each of those possibilities floated by the actors are “real.”

The JonBenét Ramsey murder is a sort of Schrödinger's cat crime: Because we don’t know what happened, all of the possibilities are plausible. They may not be true, but people arrived at their various conclusions because those conclusions seem honest — they’re linked to their own experiences, so they seem totally plausible. And Casting JonBenét surfaces them all at once.

The small number of images of JonBenét herself in the film will probably confound some Netflix viewers who watch it expecting to relive the case. But that doesn’t bother Green. Her aim is to provoke viewers into thinking about their own relationship to sensationalized media stories and the ways we arrive at what we think “really” happened.

“We're interested in their interpretations of what happened that night in the face of knowing they don't know exactly what happened,” Green says. “Like, how do they find closure? How do they move forward? How do they come to terms with something that is, basically, one giant question mark, or a mystery?”

The film closes on a little girl who plays JonBenét strutting down the hallway to “There She Is, Miss America,” which sums the movie up well: It’s both beautiful and ridiculous, emblematic of an American obsession with over-the-top spectacle and lurid crime.

“You get caught up in all the tabloid sensation and all of that stuff, and you kind of forget about what's important here,” Green says. “I always wanted to end the film with her image. It made sense to give her a kind of a swan song.” JonBenét’s ghost haunts the film — and she still haunts Boulder, too.

Casting JonBenét premieres on Netflix on April 28.