Lynch infuses the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer with a sorrowful sluggishness, a young man going through the motions of high school, but removed from the more recognizable highs and lows of coming-of-age interactions.
He also masters the look. There are the glasses and the hair and the ’70s clothes, but most of all there is the walk. With hunched shoulders and a rigid frame, it’s as if a sad telephone pole has come to life and is trudging relentlessly down the road.
His gaze is blank — what’s going on behind those eyes? And it looks as if massive cranes and pulleys would be required to force his lips into a smile.
This is a damaged teenager. We’ve all known one. We may have been one. But this damaged teen went on to become a serial killer.
If you are looking for the horrific crimes that Jeffrey Dahmer committed, look elsewhere. This film is not about that, and neither is the excellent graphic novel that it’s based on. The book, written by Derf Backderf, a high school classmate of Dahmer’s, was published in 2012. The film is set before the terrible trail of rape, killing and cannibalism.
“My Friend Dahmer,” written and directed by Marc Meyers (“Harvest,” “How He Fell in Love”), is an artfully constructed and compelling character study that shows you there was a fragile human being inside the monster.
The film takes us back to 1977 and 1978, Dahmer’s senior year of high school. He lived with his parents and younger brother in Bath. He hung out in Richfield and Akron and at Summit Mall and attended Revere High School, changed to Dawes High School for the film. (The movie was shot in Northeast Ohio last summer.)
Meyers does not play amateur psychologist. “My Friend Dahmer” is an authentic rendering of a guy who felt lost, who was a loner-outsider, who weathered the storms of his parents’ crumbling marriage and who, for a hobby, collected road kill, dissolved the animals in acid and dissected their remains in a hut behind his house. Why? “I like bones,” he says.
Dahmer’s parents, Joyce and Lionel (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) are sparring partners. Joyce’s mental illness is exacerbated by boozy rants and resentments, and soon the couple is headed for divorce and in different directions, leaving a loner truly alone. The turmoil gurgles internally. He’s whatever the opposite of glib is.
Dahmer’s struggle for a sense of self intensifies as his sexuality emerges and he obsesses over a jogger (Vincent Kartheiser). Coming out was not exactly in vogue in 1978 Ohio. Dahmer drinks heavily and gains attention at school by erupting in faux “spaz” attacks. He is befriended, for amusement purposes, by three wiseguys led by Derf (Alex Wolff), an aspiring artist who takes to drawing Dahmer and some of his antics.
At one point, Derf and the gang scrape together a few bucks and entice Dahmer to go with them to Summit Mall, where he can do his spaz-out thing for the general public. The gag backfires, as Dahmer’s classmates look on with a mix of horror and guilt.
Meyers took a few dramatic liberties, but remains largely faithful to Backderf’s pages. He and his crew paint an accurate portrait of the late ’70s — the clothes, the cars, the music, the vibe are all spot on. Meyers also showed great restraint, refusing to fall into the easy movie clich￩s of high school life that we’ve all seen a thousand times.
Best of all, there is the performance he garnered from his lead actor.
Lynch is primarily known as a singing and dancing star on the Disney Channel (“Austin & Ally,” “Teen Beach Movie”) and for fronting his band, R5, but he proves that he has a future in dramatic films if he wants one.
His is a chilling and nuanced portrayal. Lynch somehow manages to connect us with a seemingly impenetrable person. We get a real sense of this guy, this guy we want nothing to do with, as he trudge-trudge-trudges toward the abyss.