Starring Ross Lynch. Rated PG
America’s fixation on serial killers mostly concentrates on the procedural aspect of playing god. My Friend Dahmer sticks to the psychological context that helped create an unusually sensational criminal, eventually convicted for killing at least 17 young men (mostly of colour) and having sex with and/or partially devouring their bodies.
None of that happens in this smartly crafted indie feature, based on the graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, who hung out with future killer Jeffrey Dahmer in their last year of high school, in late-’70s Ohio. Of course, you don’t need to know that writer-director Marc Meyers filmed in actual locations, including the Dahmer family home. But this matters because it’s an exceptionally creepy hideaway off a busy road, on the edge of dense woods. The isolation makes it possible for him to collect roadkill and dissolve the corpses of silent lambs in acid, courtesy of skills learned from his chemist father. (“I’m trying to quit,” the lad promises, at one point.)
Said dad is played by The Good Wife’s Dallas Roberts as a meek, stuttering fellow, bullied by his hard-drinking, mentally unstable wife (Anne Heche). Daily tensions take a toll on their introverted son, played in a breakout (if rigidly controlled) performance by young Disney veteran Ross Lynch.
Young Jeffrey stalks school hallways with sunken chest and hoodie of blond hair hanging over his aviator glasses. Unsure of his own sexuality, he’s currently fixated on a middle-aged doctor (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs his stretch of highway. The kid is notably passive, but when he defuses a school situation by imitating his mom’s heavily palsied interior decorator, he’s embraced by the punky cool kids. They’re led by the compulsive sketcher called Derf, played winningly by Alex Wolff—another former child star (alongside his brother Nat). They adopt this weird mascot, but warn him to stay away from the local pot dealer, “because that guy’s a total psycho”.
Aside from its dead-on period feel, the well-paced movie’s main pull is the banality of the behaviour on display. It’s not aberration that stands out but the effort to blend in. “You want to seem normal, right?” Jeff asks a geeky girl when he needs a beard for the prom. His little brother, by the way, turned out just fine.