“I like bones,” a young Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) tells another kid from the neighborhood in “My Friend Dahmer,” and from the way the unusual and compelling drama about the future serial killer unfolds, it appears writer/director Marc Meyers does too, only in a narrative sense. A hint here and there of the man who would become Milwaukee’s most notorious murderer, the film toys with audiences who know what happens after Dahmer barely survives his teen years, but is likely just as provocative, if not more, for those who don’t as the film pieces together a taut psychological thriller that leaves no one innocent, including the audience in its wake.
Knowing that you’re already sitting down to watch it, “My Friend Dahmer” subtly asks why throughout, giving it value that you wouldn’t necessarily think a film such as this could possess as Dahmer is subjected to the cruelty of classmates and experiments with the acid his father (Dallas Roberts), a scientist, gave him to dissolve dead animals. While the film could be superficially read as “Carrie” for a new generation, Meyers’ concoction is a complete original, introducing a trio of students as Dahmer’s high school who take an interest in him, and the feeling is mutual, even if both sides are aware that the relationship they forge is not really a friendship. Instead, the trio, led by Derf (Alex Wolff), sees Dahmer as a bit of a class clown who can liven up the final days of their senior year after seeing him act out in the halls one day since he has stopped caring what people think. With his parents divorcing, and neither aware of what he’s up to in general, only to go to school where even the teachers mock him when he’s caught off-guard with a question, Dahmer, of Jeff as he’s called by most, is close to ceasing to care about people altogether.
Based on actual Dahmer cohort Derf Backderf’s graphic novel of the same name, Meyers impresses by striking a very particular tone with “My Friend Dahmer,” occasionally indulging the lurid curiosity of the audience with tongue-in-cheek nods to such future behavior as “eating your mistakes,” as his mother (Anne Heche) says when she undercooks a chicken dinner, and insinuations of violence. But this is kept to a minimum in favor of illustrating the evil that arises every day, whether out of self-preservation or the desire to get ahead by both Dahmer and the rest of the world. Essentially, what Meyers catches in such a nuanced way is a passing of the baton as Dahmer’s tormentors condition him to treat others in dehumanizing fashion, with them not seeing the consequences since they’ll soon all be off at different colleges the following year while the lessons will stick with him forever.
To watch Dahmer begin to adapt to the situations he’s in after spending so much of the film as a loner becomes a subversive act as you’re inclined to root for the introvert to come out of his shell, as we ourselves have been conditioned by other films, only to ask to what end? It is here where “My Friend Dahmer” transcends its historical attachments to add a new dimension to the story by probing the myth-making that often surrounds our biggest villains as much as our heroes, thereby enabling their rise. “My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t exclude itself from this responsibility, but by acknowledging it adds a whole other layer of intrigue as you see his personality constructed by influences he allows in and the ones he can’t control from the public at large.
Lynch is beguiling as Dahmer, both awkwardly charming at times and utterly chilling at others, but the cast is uniformly strong, complimented nicely by the incredible detail of production designer Jennifer Kilde’s and costume designer Carla Shivener’s fine work. Meyers also adds subtle, clever touches throughout, having cinematographer Daniel Katz slowly zoom in on the characters to give a constant creeping feeling and filtering in the sound of others talking about Dahmer so you know which comments leave the biggest impression. Affording such sophistication to such potentially sleazy material gives “My Friend Dahmer” the best of both worlds, resulting in a captivating and thoughtful meditation on the making of a killer.