MY FRIEND DAHMER
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Marc Meyers
Written by: Marc Meyers, adapted from John Backderf’s graphic novel
Cast: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, Vincent Kartheiser, Miles Robbins
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/15/17
Opens: November 3, 2017
Next time you hear an adolescent say that he intends to major in biology, should you be frightened? Probably not. After all not all prospective bio majors spend the best years of their lives killing people. Prospective bio major Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed seventeen young men, strangling them, drilling holes in their brains and pouring acid into them, having sex with some of the cadavers, beheading some and putting their heads in the freezer, was clearly psychotic. At his trial the prosecution argued that he was legally sane, i.e. he planned the crimes and was aware that killing was punishable.
“My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t take us to the 1991 trial, and in fact focuses on just one year of his youth when he was a senior in high school, telling his friends and even Vice President Mondale whom he met on a school trip to Washington, that he was intent on majoring, ironically, in the life science.
Marc Meyers, who wrote and directs the movie adapting from a graphic novel by John Backderf, has also contributed “Approaching Union Square,” about thirty-something people looking for love in the big city. To a great extent, “My Friend Dahmer” is about a teenager looking for love in his small-town Ohio high school and finding what passes loosely for acceptance can be gained by acting as the class clown. His shtick is to spazz out, first in the school hallway, twitching compulsively and lying on the ground shaking, gaining the attention of the young people changing classes. He is intelligent enough to know that a trio of friends, particularly Derf (Alex Wolff), hang out with him not because they really like him as an equal but rather to bully him by exhorting the young man behind the big aviator glasses to perform his clown act.
The title character is played by Ross Lynch, a star of Disney movies like the TV series Austin and Ally, about a songwriter and performer, with Lynch in the role of the non-conforming Austin. He is not only handsome but looks remarkably like the real Dahmer (see the extensive Wikipedia article with his picture), but since he rarely smiles, his face frozen, he cannot attract the fair sex. He is so self-conscious and down on himself that when he asks a freshman girl to the prom, his pitch is that she would be seen by upperclassmen, who might take an interest in her during the next few years.
His relationship with his parents could be taken as a sign that his schizoid personality was caused by genetics or environment, you pick ‘em. His mother, Joyce Dahmer (Anne Heche) was in and out of mental hospitals, and his father, Lionel Dahmer (Ross Lynch), a chemist, was taken back by his son’s use of a spare outside room to dissect roadkill and to pour acid on them not necessarily to see what’s inside but out of pure sadism. In a father-son conference, Lionel tells the boy that he should be outside making friends instead, noting that he himself had few friends when he was Jeffrey’s age and hates that side of the boy that reminds the dad of himself.
We see a few examples of his dealing with roadkill, and in one tense scene, he takes a large dog into the woods and, holding the dog by the collar, produces a knife aimed at the animals’ neck. We don’t know whether he went through with the plan, nor do we see him actually killing anyone else. This is strictly a movie about high-school days, or daze, about how his lack of acceptance, his treatment at the hands of his flibbertigibbet mother and his milquetoast father may have contribute to what could at the same time an inherited propensity to violence. In this regard and in its description of the idiocy that poses as student seriousness, we get a fascinating picture of how if you want to understand a killer, look to how he acted while in high school.
If you would like to see more about Dahmer, you can rent David Jacobson’s 2002 movie “Dahmer,” a low key look at the serial killer’s later years.
Rated R. 107 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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