To call My Friend Dahmer an “origin story” may sound flippant, given that we’re discussing not a caped crusader confined to comic book lore but one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. But as the film slowly unveils the inner demons of its pre-homicidal titular character, you may feel as though you're watching the first installment in a three-plus-picture series. Perhaps my senses have been cooked to a crisp by inundation with this sort of franchise filmmaking, but My Friend Dahmer certainly does seem to lean hard on the “what we know comes next” in order to keep the “what is happening now” running with verve.
Following Jeffrey Dahmer through his junior and senior years of high school, the film jumps between his ill-conceived efforts at making friends—teenage loner Jeff (a very good Ross Lynch) discovers a regular comic routine in mocking cerebral palsy to get cheap laughs in class—and his decreasingly safeguarded fascination with animal carcasses and bones. While it’s not exactly as though these vignettes couldn’t play as interesting on their own accord, they all feel as though they’re letting Dahmer’s common knowledge reputation do the heavy lifting.
Still, the Tribeca Film Festival premiere has its share of appeal, most notably in the complicated relationship the audience will no doubt harbor with young Jeff. Though everything we know about the boy demands revulsion, it’ll be tough not to empathize as he careens through the hallways of his decidedly John Hughesy high school, desperate for affection. The closest thing he gets is attention from three callous classmates who treat their new pal foremost as a comic prop. The central player of the bunch is “Derf” (Alex Wolff), whose real life counterpart is actually the artist and author behind the graphic novel on which My Friend Dahmer is based.
Surprisingly enough, the movie’s best work is not in the portraiture of a killer in the making, but in that of the nuance lining typically toxic teenage friendships. There’s something regrettably familiar in the way Jeff’s would-be friends (Tommy Nelson and Harrison Holzer round out the group) treat him, their fellow schoolmates, and one another—that My Friend Dahmer is just as willing to point out the monstrous nature of their behavior as it is of Jeff’s proves that the film has more on its mind than just exploiting the intrinsic intrigue of the Dahmer’s legend.
All this grim and grievous material aside, My Friend Dahmer is considerably breezy and enjoyable all the way through, rarely getting too heavy-handed in the delivery of its dark material. As an examination of a notorious American killer, it may be in over its head. But as one of something just as notorious--American high school life--it's fun, sinister, and remarkably thoughtful.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Featured image via Tribeca Film Institute
Images: Abrams Comic Arts
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.