Given the infamous trajectory of its subject's life, it might be no surprise that My Friend Dahmer is one of the most disturbing coming-of-age features in memory. But it's also exceptionally moving.
Working from highly regarded source material by Derf Backderf, a cartoonist who knew Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, writer-director Marc Meyers has made a film that gets under the skin of its troubled, ultimately depraved protagonist with an intelligent mix of horror, dark wit and profound empathy.
As the future rapist/murderer/necrophiliac/cannibal, pop singer and former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch breaks out of the teen-idol realm (and how) with a heartbreaking slouch, a thousand-yard stare and a percolating stew of compulsions beneath the gawky surface. His performance and the film are far richer and more complex than a "making of a monster" clinical rundown or a simple plea for sympathy. The impact of this sharply written year-in-the-life portrait is truly visceral, with Daniel Katz's widescreen camerawork — in some of the actual locations from Dahmer's teen years — effectively combining the leafy beauty of northern Ohio with the story's intensifying undertow of despair and derangement.
The film is set in 1977-78, Dahmer's senior year in high school. Its clear-eyed view of the period is an unnerving alternative to the warm nostalgia that characterizes many movie depictions of the late '70s. Without spelling it out, Meyers and his collaborators tap into the particular historical vein that found teens caught between the afterglow (or fallout) of the countercultural movement and the arrival of Reagan's America.
At home and at school, teens of the era were, to a significant degree, on their own, a reality that's dramatized to haunting effect. Dahmer's miswired brain circuitry makes him alone to begin with, and on top of that he's doing what he can to shut out the everyday domestic horror of his parents' disintegrating marriage and his mother's mental illness — potently externalized in Jennifer Klide's production design for the Dahmer home. Joyce Dahmer is played to nerve-jangling perfection by Anne Heche, while Dallas Roberts, as Jeff's chemist father, is a mixture of clumsy sincerity and self-disappointment. Recognizing something of himself in his son's social awkwardness, he tries to direct him toward team sports and other supposed roads to fitting in.
Though the backyard-shed "lab" where Jeff dissolves roadkill in jars of acid is unsettling to Dad, little brother Dave (Liam Koeth) and neighborhood kids, nobody sees the slow, tormenting dissolve that's going on within the strange teen. Amid the fever pitch of home life and the abuse of bullies at school, Jeff is becoming aware of his attraction to men, at a time when homosexuality is still largely closeted, especially in Middle American places like the Dahmers' suburban Ohio.
Jeff becomes as obsessed with a male jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) as he is with the innards of mammals, and his conflated urges might have left him ever more isolated in his shame. But as if understanding that he'll only ever be seen for the wrong reasons, he invents a new way for a nonentity in the high school hierarchy to be noticed: He stages sudden "spaz" routines in the school hallways, throwing fits like someone in the grips of a grand mal seizure. Taking his audacious shtick for a form of insolent performance art, an appreciative trio of self-aware nerds (Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, Harrison Holzer — all excellent) invite him into their outsider fold, several rungs up from his status as an untouchable.
Wolff's aspiring cartoonist Derf Backderf (who would begin writing his graphic novel after Dahmer's 1991 arrest) becomes Jeff's most ardent fan, working him into enough of his drawings to inspire another student (Katie Stottlemire) to ask if Jeff is his muse. In what's perhaps the film's sole off-key note, Derf's use of the word "disrupt" to describe the mission of the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club feels anachronistic, but his too-cool-for-the-mainstream sentiment is clear. Wolff conveys Derf's repulsion/admiration toward Jeff with a casual mix of charm, sincerity and offhand cruelty, while Lynch's contained performance signals that Jeff knows he's not truly accepted as one of the gang. He tries hanging out with an unhinged pot dealer (Miles Robbins), but finds his brand of violence unacceptable.
Meyers teases more gruesomeness than he makes explicit, and threads the proceedings with sly jolts of dark humor that work powerfully in the moment and as comments on what we know about Dahmer's horrendous crimes. Having undercooked a chicken, Heche's high-strung Joyce announces a new house rule to her family: "We eat our mistakes."
Meyers makes no mistakes shaping the story's rising tension and Jeff's fracturing sense of self. As with all horror stories, the soundscape is as crucial as the visuals. Andrew Hollander's score deepens the sense of dread with its staticky groans, while even a creaking door can sound like a cry of pain. In keeping with the film's unsentimental approach to the '70s, music supervisor Jonathan Leahy contributes a refreshingly non-obvious selection of period songs, saving a couple of better-known numbers, appropriately, for the prom scene, in all its torturous glory.
In its fusion of craft and narrative, My Friend Dahmer is exquisite. In its portrayal of Jeff's agonies, it can be excruciating. Meyers ends the movie on a chilling note, showing us the moment when a young man steers the toxic mess of his life onto a path that can only be called evil. The film is an experience that's not easily shaken, but it's not the ghastliness of the story that grabs hold of you and won't let go — it's the soul-crushing sadness.
Production companies: Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment
Cast: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, Vincent Kartheiser, Harrison Holzer, Miles Robbins, Katie Stottlemire, Dave Sorboro, Liam Koeth
Director-screenwriter: Marc Meyers, based on the book by Derf Backderf
Producers: Jody Girgenti, Marc Meyers, Adam Goldworm, Michael Merlob, Milan Chakraborty
Executive producers: Mike Novogratz, Giorgio Angelini
Director of photography: Daniel Katz
Production designer: Jennifer Klide
Costume designer: Carla Shivener
Editor: Jamie Kirkpatrick
Composer: Andrew Hollander
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook
Rated R, 107 minutes