“My Friend Dahmer” is not an origin story about the serial killer Jeff Dahmer. It does not analyze and decipher each aspect of his tormented teenage life in attempts to determine the specific catalyst to his killing of 17 men. Director Marc Myers instead shows us that his teenage Jeff Dahmer is the same murderous Jeff Dahmer now part of American crime lore. The only difference is instead of finding a new victim to slash, he’s just trying to find a date to prom.
Ross Lynch plays Jeff Dahmer, who becomes unaffectionately known to his “friends” as Dahmer. Equipped with a John Denver haircut and the glasses to match, he walks with a hunched back and a quiet demeanor, unaware of his weirdness until it’s pointed out to him. His parents Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche) argue and bicker, with Joyce exhibiting manic compulsive tendencies that make her totally ignore Jeff in favor of herself. Lionel is more attentive but still distant, a man unsure of how to connect with Jeff because he’s connected with very so people himself.
If his home life weren’t bad enough, things are exponentially worse for Jeff at school. He has only one friend, and begins making mentally disabled noises and gestures in hopes of eliciting approving laughs, or at the least, disapproving attention. The scheme works, with three boys, Neil, Mike and Moose, deciding to adopt Jeff as their comedic lab rat. Their relationship grows, with Neil, Mike and Moose almost beginning to view Jeff as a true companion after enough time, but still don’t have the necessary respect for him to certify the friendship. In-between these recurring, ritualistic sessions of peer pressure-induced humiliation, Jeff is battling a growing addiction to alcohol, fierce anger and confusion over his sexual orientation, and his unyielding desire to cut open living things and see just what makes them tick.
The movie succeeds because it avoids the common archetypes of high school bullies, never once trying to claim Jeff is the way he is because jocks ripped his whitey tighteys from time to time. Actors Tommy Nelson, Harrison Holzer and Cameron McKendry give us well-fleshed out characters, typical teens whose biggest concerns are pulling off humorous pranks and discussing their failed attempts with girls. Their characters’ treatment of Jeff is unfair but they grow to realize the error of their ways. They are human in all the ways that Jeff isn’t.
But the film does falter in its ending, trying too hard to connect its reality with our reality in a way that doesn’t really satisfy. The journey to that point, though, is haunting, the spirit of the powerful performances and tender direction sticking with us long after the movie has given its final breath.