The premise of “My Friend Dahmer” — a year in the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, the gay cannibalistic serial killer, back when he was a misunderstood high school kid — makes it sound like the indie-hipster version of “Bates Motel”: a “sensitive” prequel to the madness to come. To be sure, the dementia the movie shows us is totally in its embryonic form. Jeffrey, at 17, likes to take roadkill and dissolve it in jars of acid he gets from his chemist father, and his surly blank stare gives new meaning to the term “teenage outcast.” Yet “My Friend Dahmer,” adapted from a true-life graphic novel by John Backderf (who based it on his own high-school experiences with Dahmer), is more than a twisted Afterschool Special. It’s a serious and audacious attempt to dramatize the inner life of a sick puppy when he wasn’t quite so sick.
As you watch the movie, its central idea — that Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t just born, he was made; that he started off as an actual human being — has a shocking validity that never undercuts the extremity of his crimes. “My Friend Dahmer” is disturbingly compelling and original, and with the right handling it could prove a specialty-market sensation. After “Bates Motel” and “Hannibal,” mainstream audiences are edgier now, and they’re more than ready for a movie that looks into the dark heart of the adolescent abyss.
The casting of Disney star Ross Lynch as Dahmer sounds like a stunt, but it works for several reasons. Lynch, in aviator frames, with a shaggy coif, actually looks remarkably the way Dahmer did in 1978, and he acts with a spooked gravity — his face frozen, as if he were literally afraid to smile — that’s highly suggestive of unformed inner demons. Lynch, as surely as Jeremy Renner 15 years ago in “Dahmer” (the movie that put him on the map), has fearlessly thought and felt his way into this role.
Jeffrey is the target of bullies at school, and his crush on the bearded jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) he sees each morning from the school bus is a feeling that he doesn’t know what to do with. (He gets pummeled for being a “faggot” without doing anything at all.) His home, meanwhile, looks normal from the outside, but his mother, played with disquieting authenticity by Anne Heche, has been in and out of mental institutions; Heche, all righteous temper and frazzled impulse control, conjures the insidiousness of mental illness — the way it creates an atmosphere of instability that worms its way into the people around it. Jeffrey’s dad (Dallas Roberts) can’t handle it, and neither can Jeffrey. When he retreats into the chemistry shed in the rustic backyard of their home in Bath, Ohio, fixating on the insides of animals, he’s really trying to locate his own soul.
It becomes an obsession, and when his dad dismantles the shed, Jeffrey reacts by faking a “spaz” attack at school — a clear sign that he’s had it with interacting. Except that a trio of brainy bohemian types (or, at least, the 1978 Ohio version), led by Derf (Alex Wolff), decides that the sight of Jeffrey “spazzing out” is actually a so-crazy-it’s-cool outsider art stunt.
This is where the movie really starts to get interesting. We can probably all agree that societies don’t “create” serial killers, yet in the last 50 years they’ve created the context for them. Charles Manson’s insanity predated the counterculture, but the crimes of Manson and his hippie “family” were all tangled up with the trash-the-rules, if-it-feels-good-do-it amorality of the late ’60s. In Dahmer’s case, the connection is just as crucial but less obvious, because the late ’70s weren’t as iconic an era. Yet Marc Meyers, the writer-director of “My Friend Dahmer,” has evoked that time — far more skillfully, it must be said, than Mike Mills did in “20th Century Women” — by capturing what it was that gave the era its peculiar unhinged flavor. The counterculture was over (things had turned “straight” again), but there was still a floating feeling that acting out against “conformity” was a righteous thing to do.
With the encouragement of his new buddies, who view him as a total scary freak (but that’s what they like about him!), Jeffrey begins to spazz out in school — his body convulsing, his tongue hanging out, as if he were walking around in the middle of an electroshock treatment. It’s a kind of psycho nerd performance art. (It was the age of the Ramones and “Teenage Lobotomy.” Talk about context!) The friends also arrange for Jeffrey to sneak into the yearbook photo of every club in school — a leftover-’60s Dada goof. What’s brilliant about Lynch’s performance is that he shows you how Jeffrey goes along with all this stuff as a way of being accepted, yet he’s too smart to con himself into thinking that he is accepted. His “role” as the school nutjob is chillingly detached.
“My Friend Dahmer” is the movie that Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” wanted to be: a humanizing dissection of teen psychosis. The movie says, implicitly, that if Jeffrey felt like he could express his sexual feelings, he might have found a different path. He’s all bottled up, like Norman Bates; he can’t tolerate the desire that he perceives — correctly — the people around him can’t tolerate. The fact that Ross Lynch is so handsome, that he looks like a star, becomes part of the movie’s aesthetic. Jeffrey Dahmer, maniac that he was, was handsome too; en element of his insanity is that he couldn’t see it. Of course, one can take this sort of thing too far, but “My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t. It sees Jeffrey Dahmer for what he was: a young man who could express himself only through the most hideous violence. Yet it shows you that what he had to express was real.