“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet,” said writer John Ciardi. “Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” Even the most notorious evildoer was once just a kid, and infamous cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is no exception. My Friend Dahmer portrays him as a gawky teenage reject struggling to find a place where he fits.
Bath, Ohio, in the mid-1970s: young Jeff (Ross Lynch) is a high school freshman who lives with his parents, chemist Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), and his little brother, Dave (Liam Koeth). It’s a normal middle class nuclear existence, except for his mother’s mental illness, his parents’ bickering, and his odd pastime of collecting roadkill and dissolving the carcasses in a vat of acid his father gave him. There’s also his obsession with a rather bearish jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) Jeff frequently sees running past his house.
Jeff’s not making it at school, where his classmates look past him, probably because he’s so fucking weird. Out of apparent fearful concern for his loner son, Lionel demands that Jeff make some friends after he discovers a collection of bones stashed away in Jeff’s hideout in the woods.
Jeff fakes an epileptic seizure in the cafeteria at school and attracts the attention of Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer), who get a kick out of him and his antics. They start hanging out with Jeff and form “The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club,” a front for pulling pranks because they can get Jeff to do anything — even finagling a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale (Tom Luce) on a class trip to Washington, D.C.
Jeff seems to be connecting to others for the first time, but his disintegrating home life throws off his progress.
Adapted from Cleveland artist Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, screenwriter and director Marc Meyers eschews gore and focuses on psychology, examining what may have happened to send Dahmer where he ended up. His approach is surprisingly empathetic and understanding without making excuses. Backderf offers unique insight that Meyers uses wisely. The acting, particularly that of Lynch and Wolff, lends a sensitivity that initially might seem unwarranted if not unworthy of the subject. The story here is sad, really: no gore, no murders, just a weird kid whose home life is falling apart.
My Friend Dahmer is a mix of teen comedy and tragedy that ends immediately before his first murder. It’s much better than I anticipated.
With Adam Kroloff, Brady M.K. Dunn, Michael Ryan Boehm, Cameron McKendry, Jake Ingrassia, Ben Zgorecki, Kris Smith, Jack DeVillers, Gabriela Novogratz, Miles Robbins, Joey Vee, Susan Bennett, Maryanne Nagel, Andrew Gorell, Katie Stottlemire, Carmen Gangale, Sydney Jane Meyer, Dave Sorboro, Denny Sanders
Production: Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment, Attic Light Films
Distribution: FilmRise, Altitude Film Entertainment
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B