By Jim Slotek
It’s significant that filmdom’s most compelling serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, was fictional. Attempts to portray actual human-hunters have tended toward cardboard (the Netflix series Mindhunter being a welcome recent exception).
By introducing us to a young Jeffrey Dahmer in high school in Ohio, the story of a handful of kids who briefly embraced Dahmer for his weirdness places the deviant in a context where extreme deviance can be hard to spot amid "ordinary" deviance.
Despite what we know going in – and the compelling performance of Disney kid Ross Lynch as a junior Dahmer – I was struck by the randomness of guessing who could graduate to murder from this ‘70s high school. Would it be one of the more sadistic bullies? Or maybe that twitchy drug dealer with the “thing” for knives and guns? Or maybe it’s that babyish bully-victim who shared Dahmer's fondness for Neil Sedaka (that’s pretty weird right there).
But only one graduated to murder 17 young men in unspeakable ways. That would be the one who spent his spare time as a kid collecting roadkill and dissolving the flesh off it with acid, and who briefly gained something like acceptance by disrupting classes and hallway traffic with a mean-spirited “Spazz” act, inspired by his mother’s palsied interior decorator.
In My Friend Dahmer, that public performance – an anger-fueled outburst prompted by Dahmer’s own experience of being bulled – attracts the attention of some self-styled outsiders, including Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Derf (Alex Wolff). (The movie is based on the graphic novel by Dahmer’s erstwhile friend and classmate, the cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf.)
Though they’re capable of meanness themselves (including a humiliating prank on a former prom queen), the self-proclaimed “Dahmer Fan Club” soon begins to sense there might be something more than ordinary high school rebellion and weirdness inside their new friend’s head. (Neil is the first to suspect that Dahmer is quietly becoming incredibly angry with everyone, including his “friends”).
Still, they have their adventures, including a school band trip to Washington, where Dahmer bluffs his way into a White House encounter with then vice-president Walter Mondale. (He tells the Veep he wants to study “biology”).
No, Meyers doesn’t try to make us sympathize with Dahmer, though he does colorfully sketch the future killer’s odd home life (Anne Heche as a pill-popping mom, and Dallas Roberts as the most infuriatingly ineffectual dad since Jim Bacchus in Rebel Without A Cause).
A fascinating, and even darkly humorous movie begins to turn frightening as we see Dahmer begin to act out his fantasies. Behind his friends’ idiosyncrasies are real plans and fully-formed adults beginning to break out of their misfit adolescent shells. Dahmer, on the other hand, is inexorably moving toward his first kill.
It’s left up to the viewer to decide whether the many humiliations Dahmer experiences had a causative effect on his future, or whether there was simply a switch ready to flick in his brain.
My Friend Dahmer doesn’t indulge in such speculation. It simply drops you into a point in the serial killer’s past where his weirdness could still fall within the bounds of “normal.”
My Friend Dahmer. Directed by Marc Meyers. Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff and Tommy Nelson. Opens in limited release Friday, November 10.