Is this a joke? That's the first reaction you have when you hear the title – but the joke's on you. My Friend Dahmer, which chronicles Jeffrey Dahmer's senior year in high school before he graduated and became infamous for being a serial-killing cannibal, is a warped wonder of a movie that takes twisted to areas few have investigated.
Crisply directed by Marc Meyers from a 2012 graphic novel by John "Derf" Backderf – one of Jeffrey's classmates at Revere High School in Ohio – My Friend Dahmer keeps pulling you up short. Adolescent angst? You don't know the half of it. Ross Lynch, in a blond mop of hair and wearing aviators, gives a breakthrough performance of surpassing creepiness as the 17-year-old exemplar of future nightmares. Lynch came to teen fame as Austin Moon on Disney Channel's show Austin & Ally and with his family band R5. Warning: Very young fans may be traumatized. Those new to the 21-year-old's work will have to admit that they've found an remarkable new actor in their midst.
Jeffrey is basically your quiet, closeted boy next door. Bullied at school and unable to deal with his sexual attraction to a local jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) he sees from a bus, the lad views school as a chance to get away from home. That's where his mother (Anne Heche) makes life an emotional rollercoaster for him and his dad (Dallas Roberts) – when she’s not being institutionalized, that is.
So far, so coming-of-age cliché. Then Jeffrey starts retreating to his backyard garage to study dead animals, as if their insides will give him clues about himself. His alleged friends, led by Derf (a terrific Alex Wolff), get off on this weirdo's spaced-out stare and his fake "spastic" fits. Do they offer help? Nope. Out of respect for Dahmer's victims, Meyers doesn’t make cheap jokes about unspeakable crimes; the film ends as his murder spree begins. Rather, the writer-director tries to understand what formed Dahmer and made him act out the way he did. To quote a line from David Fincher's Netflix series Mindhunter, about early FBI investigations into in the psyches of serial killers: "How do we get ahead of crazy if we don't know how crazy thinks?"
The result is a movie that ambitiously tackles that idea without plumbing any startling new depths. There must be reasons that would make a loner like Dahmer take the lives of 17 victims and have sex with their dead bodies before devouring them; simply blaming the parents in amateur psychology at its shallowest. If you leave the multiplex with those thoughts swimming in your head, My Friend Dahmer has done a job on you. The film exerts a fascination that cannot be denied. But, frustratingly, it leaves us on the outside looking in.