My Friend Dahmer, from a graphic memoir of the same name by the pseudonymous Derf Backderf, is a kind of coming-of-age tale that dissects a troubled kid’s descent into murder. Backderf was a high-school pal of the boy who would grow up to become the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. There’s no one single person or event to blame for Dahmer kidnapping and eating 17 young men; his devolution here gets imagined as the cumulative effect of slights and bullying at school and neglect from his mentally ill mother (Anne Heche) and checked-out, emasculated father (Dallas Roberts). The film ultimately is about watching a morose child lose his grip on reality, but director Marc Meyers and Backderf find in Dahmer’s painful naivete moments of humor that draw a laugh even as they pull at your heartstrings and send a chill down your spine.
Former Disney kid Ross Lynch plays Dahmer as something other than the total tortured loser you may imagine. Yes, he’s often within an inch of getting the shit kicked out of him for being weird, but he’s socially savvy enough to shield himself from the abuse by letting his more effeminate acquaintances endure it, while he beelines for the door. He may be a sometimes sympathetic character, but he never tilts over into likable. Hell, neither do the arty freak pals Dahmer picks up after he purposely “spazzes out” in class, proving to be the scourge of his teachers. Dahmer bonds with this gang of dudes, led by Derf (Alex Wolff), simply because they’re a kind of united front in the ongoing war of students vs. teachers. That plays here as true to the fleeting, surface-level relationships of kids in high schools with a limited pool of friends. As much as this story is about Dahmer, it’s also about Backderf’s fears of possible complicity — could he have known how troubled Dahmer actually was? Did he miss signs that could have been a warning?
Dahmer targeted men or color for his murders. Meyers offers no explanations for that beyond Dahmer’s interactions with the school’s only black kid, Charlie (Dontez James). The two are paired together in a hotel room for a class trip to Washington, D.C., and as the statuesque football player tries to rest on the bed and mind his own business, the chaffingly naive Dahmer remarks that his roomie’s palms aren’t as black as the rest of his skin. Oh, the cringe-laugh that broke out in my theater. You get a sense that these two people, different as they may be, were both “othered” at that school — Charlie for the color of his skin, Dahmer for his latent homosexuality. But his tone-deaf comments suggest that Dahmer was already too far gone to find real connection, even with someone else under duress.
But just when that scene might start stirring sympathy for Dahmer, the encounter turns unsettling. “Are your insides the same as my insides?” Dahmer asks. We worry over where that line of questions might be leading — is this when he’s finally going to snap? Still, the laughs and tension aren’t cheap — Meyers manages the feat of balancing complex tones, never resorting to poking fun at his subject. My Friend Dahmer is both sensitive and fascinating, distinguished by a stellar, mouth-breathing performance of insecurity from Lynch.