Sometimes you spend an entire film wondering why it exists. Any feature, as anybody reading this likely knows, is a massive undertaking that requires months or years of intense, sustained effort. Even with faulty or unpleasurable movies, you can probably figure out a project’s reason for being: niche appeal, a cash grab, a private obsession, etc.
And then there’s the rare picture, like “My Friend Dahmer,” that’ll leave you in a puddle of your own dandruff after you’ve scratched your head for two hours.
Adapted from the 2012 biographical comic of the same name by cartoonist John Backderf (credited here by the obvious pseudonym “Derf Backderf”), “My Friend Dahmer” details serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s final months in high school at the tail end of the 1970s. A stooped, yellow-mopped loner in bell bottoms and wire aviators, “Jeff” (played by an opaque Ross Lynch of Disney Channel fame) begins to hang with a trio of bullies after his father (Dallas Roberts) tosses out the teen’s animal-corpse collection.
“I like bones. It interests me, what’s inside,” Jeff explains to his new friends in one of several clunky allusions to Dahmer’s later crimes, which disproportionately victimized men of color. In the most cringe-inducing of these lines, Jeff says of the chicken at the dinner table, “I like the dark meat.”
Much of the handsome but unilluminating “My Friend Dahmer” is a kind of guessing game. In high school, your social circle can become your destiny, and so an inadvertent battle for Jeff’s soul takes place. On one extreme is a sweet, presumed-to-be-gay classmate (Jack DeVillers) who invites Jeff to a concert headlined by their favorite singer, Neil Sadaka, and from whom Jeff callously walks away whenever the slighter boy is roughed up for his effeminacy. On the other extreme is the school psycho (Miles Robbins), who even scares Jeff when the two of them go into the woods and the other boy instigates a game of Russian roulette.
The happy-ish medium seems to lie with Derf’s (Alex Wolff) small crew, but closeted gay Jeff still feels like an outsider — and a not-entirely-comfortable source of entertainment — around the casually homophobic pack of run-of-the-mill sadists. Jeff (or “Dumber,” as he’s sometimes called around school) isn’t particularly interested in friendship. He’d much rather be alone with a bottle, if not killing and slashing open animals, and so it’s something of a mystery who’ll stay by Jeff’s side and why.
Writer-director Marc Meyers (“How He Fell in Love,” “Harvest”), like Backderf before him, indicts Jeff’s distracted father and mentally-ill mother (Anne Heche) for their neglect of their firstborn son. Shot in Dahmer’s actual boyhood home — a low-slung, unremarkable ranch house in suburban Akron — the film attempts to use the elder Dahmers’ impending divorce to gin up sympathy for Jeff.
But, and please bear with the obviousness of the following statement, most children of divorce and even neglect don’t go on to confess to 17 murders. Nor do they engage in cannibalism and necrophilia, two facets of the Dahmer case that make the murderer freakish even by serial-killer standards.
There is, in fact, such a chasm between the unreadable character we see on screen and the extraordinary grisliness of Dahmer’s crimes that this depiction is about as helpful as all those inevitable attributions of mass murderers as “quiet, normal-seeming” men from shocked neighbors.With the exception of his internalized homophobia, the character of Jeff is too impenetrable to identify with. Frustratingly, Meyers seems to take for granted that the teen’s “fascination” with bones and innards ended there, that that interest was only a kind of detached curiosity.
Any action is made up of the desire to perform that act, as well as the will to carry it out. We may want to do any number of terrible things, but we often don’t because those impulses are morally wrong. With its observational dispassion, “My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t quite help us understand why Jeff is so into killing, and it’s pretty much useless when it comes to clarifying how he justifies committing such atrocities to himself.
By focusing on a vulnerable and ostensibly universal phase of life (out-of-state field trips, prom, and graduation are milestones here), the film wishes to connect us to the part of Jeff that just wanted to be normal, no matter his hobbies of collecting roadkill or dissolving dead cats in acid. But even then, he took liberties others didn’t, and deeper characterization might have helped us see how he saw the world and his place in it.
Jeff spends much of the film making fun of his mother’s interior decorator, Mr. Fedele (Christopher Mele, “Marshall”), who suffers from cerebral palsy. (I have to admit, his slurred speech and shaking limbs reminded me greatly of candidate Donald Trump mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski, whose disability affects his hands and right arm.) It’s not insignificant that Mr. Fedele is the only successful gay man in the film; at least at this stage in his life, Jeff seems incapable of imagining an open, well-adjusted homosexuality.
Later, Derf and his friends videotape Jeff after paying him to fake seizures and mimic Mr. Fedele’s condition at the mall. The scene is tragic and repellent, a display of internalized homophobia and cruelty toward people with disabilities. But it’s also not very revealing, unless the idea that some gay teens (like all adolescents) can be a–holes is somehow revelatory. (Again, the distance between being an awful jerk as an 18-year-old and a cannibal killer just a few years later seems quite far.) Like the rest of the film, the mall scene ultimately elucidates little we couldn’t have guessed on our own, and it leaves us with more questions than answers.