Film Review: My Friend Dahmer

Based on the graphic-novel memoir by Derf Backderf, who knew the serial-killer-to-be in high school, 'My Friend Dahmer' is a low-key excavation of teen longueurs given bite by what viewers know lies ahead.
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Richfield, Ohio, mid 1970s: Jeffrey Dahmer (former Disney channel star Ross Lynch) is that kid—the one who doesn't date or seem to have any friends, but isn't really a problem. He has a couple of extracurricular activities, isn't flunking out, doesn't sell dope or cut classes. Nobody knows his home life is falling apart: His brittle mother, Joyce (an excellent Anne Heche), aggressively resents being stuck at home with the kids—Jeff and his little brother—and his dad, chemist Lionel (Dallas Roberts), knows his son needs some kind of help—he just has no idea what, and has a feeling that teaching Jeff to dissolve animal carcasses in acid so he can study the bones might not have been his wisest parental decision.

And the Dahmers don't even know what Jeff has been up to at school. He's started having fake seizures in the hallways just to freak out his classmates… which, to be fair, isn't the stupidest thing a high-school misfit has ever done to get noticed, because any attention is better than being totally ignored. And that's where Backderf's (Alex Wolff) unique experience starts to get interesting: He and his friends Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer)—whose status lies somewhere between uncool and total outcasts—form a "Dahmer fan club" because Jeff's disruptions of the social order strike them as just the right level of fighting the power. It won't get them beaten up or expelled, but it will piss off teachers and give them something exciting to do.

Behind its broadside of a title, which dares you to ask what kind of jackass refers to a budding cannibalistic murderer as my friend, writer-director Marc Meyers' film is a surprisingly compelling adaptation that's neither sensationalistic nor prescriptive. Meyers clearly responded to the fact that Backderf's friendship with Dahmer flourished in distinct milieu that no longer exists, one in which middle-class teenagers weren't parented within an inch of their lives and the social media that make overscheduled teens' lives a 24/7 spectacle were a full two decades in the future. Take away the camp appeal of extreme ’70s clothes and hairstyles and there's an eeriness to the divide between generations.

But My Friend Dahmer doesn't render a verdict on middle-class tunnel vision or suggest that growing up in a fractured family and being miserable in high school make a serial murderer—if it were, America would be collectively wishing for a zombie apocalypse, because at least the walking dead can't fool you into thinking they're just quirky and will grow out of it. It's a subtly discomfiting movie that doesn't accuse an era or a class or an institution of making young men into monsters and yet ends on a note that acknowledges the horrible reality that monstrous men (and the occasional women) were once boys who took a very wrong turn because nothing held them back.

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