“I know there was a Santa Claus that was at the party that maybe could have done it.” This idea is offered some 40 minutes into Kitty Greene’s Casting JonBenét. Pondering the possibilities, one of the women looking to be cast as Patsy Ramsey comes on an idea that appeared in tabloids back in the late ’90s, that a local Santa Claus strangled and abused the child, and left her body to be found in her parents’ Boulder, Colorado home. Continue reading…
It’s a horrific thought, of course. But it’s hardly weird or new, given the stories that circulate occasionally about suspect Santa Clauses at malls and department stores. In the olden days, back in the days of Miracle on 34th Street, that fake Santa might have been revealed as the real Santa, come to town to teach Maureen O’Hara that wishes do come true, or a few years later, Art Carney, playing a miserable alcoholic of a fake Santa on the Twilight Zone, might have discovered the true spirit of the holiday, thanks to jingly bells, a sleigh, and off-screen flying deer. More recently, though, the fake Santa is likely to be bad, in any number of ways.
But what’s particularly compelling about the Santa story in Casting JonBenét is not that it might be true, but that it is considered at all, as one of many stories, by many observers who know nothing about the family, the case, or the circumstances. Now, those people know the case was mishandled and that the family was in trouble, and that little children in beauty pageants make for popular, if distressing, reality shows. Then, during the Christmas season in 1996 when JonBenét’s body was found, people knew less, and so they guessed: brothers could be jealous, parents could be angry, sensational myths could swirl as easily as leads and legal theories. JonBenét was fake news before fake news was a thing.
That’s the premise of Green’s movie, a smart and challenging piece that never gives up answers you might be hoping for. Rather, it poses question after question, the forms of people who are auditioning for the roles of key characters in the still unsolved mystery, as John and Patsy, the forever rattled (but never rattled enough) parents, as Burke the brother who might have been able to smash his sister’s head like a watermelon, as the detectives and the Santas who might hold keys to what happened, and of course, as JonBenét.
JonBenét, played by many girls during the casting story, appears in a hallway at last played by one girl. Bathed in gauzy light, she dances like a sugarplum fairy at the end of the film, to the haunting tune of “There She Is.” You always knew it was haunting, you realize, as you hear it in this moment. Just as you always knew that Christmas was full of risk, that parents can be troubled, that a desire to know is wrapped up in a fear of knowing, that the stories we all tell are exploitative and sincere, real and false, harrowing and seductive all at the same time. It’s a documentary that lays out the stakes of documentary, and also, the stakes of belief and need, the consuming desires that structure the craving for truth, even if it’s fake. During this season, we can be aware of that much, at least.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Casting JonBenet was selected as AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for May 5 – 12, 2017.