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Apr 25 2017
I Was A Teenage Serial Killer: A Review Of MY FRIEND DAHMER Comments (0)

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 12.46.40 AMKiller eyes — Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer (Image via Aperture)

I knew teen heartthrob Ross Lynch back when he was grinning his way through DSC02402edit Disney Channel's Austin & Ally (2011-2016).

I guess I could write a script called My Friend Lynch, but I can guarantee you it wouldn't be as rich as the film My Friend Dahmer, directed by Marc Meyers and adapted from Derf Backderf's graphic novel of the same name, because unlike Dahmer, Ross didn't go on to kill a bunch of people, and because my interaction with him was confined to taking the Teen Beach Movie (2013) cast to brunch during filming and directing a photo shoot of Ross for the teen magazine I edited.

But my dealings with Lynch did partly motivate me to buy tickets to Dahmer at the Tribeca Film Festival, because there is a nostalgia for seeing what happens to people you knew in the past, and how interesting that the tow-headed, moonwalking kid who loved pink underwear and pop was — five years later — making his debut as the lead in a feature film playing one of the most notorious serial killers who ever lived, the Milwaukee Cannibal himself, Jeffrey Dahmer.

The story of Dahmer was another reason I had to see the film. As a college student in Chicago, I'd been to the Vortex and Carol's Speakeasy, gay bars, at the same time Dahmer was there getting one of his victims, so when news broke in the early '90s of his horrific acts — raping, murdering, dismembering, sometimes eating 17 young men and boys — I kept thinking how spooky it was that we had sort of crossed paths.

Now, imagine what it would have been like going to high school with Dahmer and having that same nostalgic what ever happened to? feeling about him, only to hear that he's just been arrested as a flesh-eating murderer?

That's what happened to artist Backderf, who over 10 years after graduating with Dahmer learned his old classmate's fate. That's also the basis for the darkly — sometimes brightly — funny My Friend Dahmer, which chronicles Dahmer's teen years, leading up to his first kill.

The film focuses on Jeffrey (Lynch), a shambling, awkward loner who takes to faking epileptic fits to amuse his few friends after his had-it-up-to-here dad (Dallas Roberts) takes apart the shed in which his son has been dissolving roadkill in jars filled with acid. (Warning sign!) Along with his dad, Jeffrey's highstrung, mentally unsound mom (Anne Heche) adds to the stress in a life already made stressful due to his outcast status.

Though the film is our window into Dahmer's world, we also have ambassadors in the form of Derf (Alex Wolff), Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer), three cool dorks who think Dahmer is a hilarious genius, and who wind up befriending and, at times, cruelly exploiting him for kicks. It is through them, the Dahmer Fan Club, that we are able to fully experience Dahmer's slide from highly sympathetic geek to deranged psychopath.

The film is a surprise in that it is most often a deftly directed and potently acted coming-of-age film, sometimes as inscrutably on the money as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), but with a Freaks and Geek (1999-2000) poignancy. Our awareness of what becomes of Dahmer in real life informs some of the more foreboding scenes, yet there are many times I found myself forgetting what I knew ... then experiencing dread when remembering where this was all heading.

Lynch gives a solid, assured performance, confidently choosing to mimic Dahmer's bizarre, lurching walk and his deathly stare. He brings a humanity to a character who is in the process of losing it, allowing the audience to marvel at his charm when he orchestrates a meeting with VP Mondale on a class trip to DC, or when he gives a wallflower the hard-sell in order to get her to accompany him to the prom.

Lynch skillfully communicates Dahmer's naivete, as well as his cunning. His silent acting at the very moment Dahmer seems to give up and turn toward his darker impulses is impressive.

It's hard to ever steal focus when a Disney Channel star is transforming into a madman in the same movie you're in, but Nelson and Wolff, in particular, are so outstanding, are such convincing regular kids, it serves to underscore how alarmingly off everything is in the Dahmer household. Wolff, also a former kid actor, who appeared on Nickelodeon's The Naked Brothers Band (2007-2009), is an absolute star.

I was blown away by some of the adult performances, especially Roberts, who is brimming with contempt for his lot in life. Heche is so committed to her character — who in the movie had been recently committed — that I think audiences will love or hate her, but I liked her hot-mess mama.

The film looks handsome and expensive, and costume designer Carla Shivener nails '70s clothing. She nails it as it really was, not as it is seen through a 2017 filter, so some characters might actually (gasp) wear the same T-shirt more than once. The entire retro look of the movie was spot-on, with great attention to detail that avoided super-obvious choices when conveying the era.

Best of all, My Friend Dahmer manages to shed light on a dark mind without excusing the atrocities for which it is responsible.

My Friend Dahmer is at Tribeca this week.

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