My Friend Dahmer, among its many other qualities, has a great opening line: “Is this person famous? Would I know this person?” a Twenty Questions-playing teen asks a friend as the camera slowly tracks in to their classmate Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) sitting by himself on a school bus. That’s the film’s theme in a nutshell: Even the most notorious people in history had to start somewhere—they all had childhoods—and budding insanity can hide, undetected or misinterpreted, beneath a deceptive surface.
Jeffrey is far, but not too far, from his infamous murder spree when we’re first introduced to him. My Friend Dahmer (which screened at the current Fantasia International Film Festival and goes into release in November) is a fascinating portrait of a burgeoning serial killer, and part of its tension derives from the fact that the warning signs we’re now aware of, after a few decades of media on the subject, seemed like little more than weird eccentricities back in 1978, when the movie is set. Jeffrey has a fascination with dead animals, and has a shack in the woods behind his Ohio home where he places remains he retrieves from local roads in jars of acid. His father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) set up the shack as a place for his son to perform his “chemistry experiments,” though what Jeffrey gets up to is not what he had in mind.
Meanwhile, his mother Joyce (Anne Heche) is a year out of one of many stints in a mental hospital, though writer/director Marc Meyers doesn’t take the simplistic approach that Jeffrey’s madness is hereditary. Rather, it’s the sum total of multiple influences, among them repressed sexuality (Jeffrey is gay, at a time when there was little support or tolerance for teens in that situation), a fractured home life with parents who can’t and won’t try to understand him, and, as the film goes on, appreciation and validation of his misbehavior by his peers.
After Jeffrey fakes an epileptic seizure in class, and the amusement of the other students encourages him to repeat that stunt in the halls, his lab partner John (Alex Wolff) and a couple of John’s pals befriend Jeffrey, making him the center of their “fan club.” They’re not simply mocking him; Jeffrey’s outbursts appeal to them as an anarchic expression of rebellion, and they goad him into going spastic in other public places. It’s the kind of thing kids today might pull as a YouTube stunt, but here, it’s just for the trio’s own amusement—a way to act out against society by proxy. What they don’t recognize (and the movie doesn’t indict them for egging him on) is that what seems like harmless buffoonery is just an early symptom of a much deeper sickness.
The real-life John grew up to adopt the pen name Derf Backderf when he created the My Friend Dahmer graphic novel the movie is based on. Both page and screen versions go far beyond any prurient appeal of witnessing the early days of a heinous criminal to delve much deeper, digging under Jeffrey’s surface in ways that don’t excuse his acts, but foster an understanding about how such a monster is “born.” Meyers’ matter-of-fact approach to the material eschews sensationalistic foreshadowing; he knows that anyone compelled to see the film will know where Jeffrey wound up, and while there are hints of the shocking acts he will ultimately commit, My Friend Dahmer is largely a nuanced study of teen alienation that also has a tragic, scary undercurrent due to its specific subject.
That central figure is given a perfect interpretation by Lynch, previously known for Disney Channel fare and breaking into the top ranks of young actors with this performance. Like Meyers, he doesn’t act like he’s revealing the early exploits of a homicidal cannibal; his Jeffrey is a deeply troubled kid struggling with inner demons, trying to find true acceptance and being thwarted at every turn. (He’s smart enough to know that John and his pals are having fun at his expense, but goes along with it anyway.) Lynch is surrounded by fine performances, as well as a keen yet understated evocation of the late 1970s. A few stranger-than-fiction moments have been embellished from the reality (most notably a visit to Vice President Walter Mondale during a Washington, DC class trip), but overall, My Friend Dahmer feels very much authentic to its time and its protagonist who’s destined to be the worst kind of antagonist.