If you go into “My Friend Dahmer” looking for new insights into what causes an awkward teenager from suburban Cleveland to kill and rape 17 men and boys, you won’t get it.
What you will get from the buzz-worthy independent film, showing this weekend at Village 8 Theatres, is the uneasy realization that human beings like Jeffrey Dahmer do exist, they go to high school, and you might even get a guilty laugh from their social guffaws until, you know, cannibalism.
Writer/director Marc Meyers builds tension throughout much of the film by abruptly shifting tone, from dramatic to blackly comedic, most notably within key scenes. A gut-wrenching admission by Dahmer’s father (a great performance by Dallas Roberts) about why he has so much trouble connecting with his teenage son concludes with him giving young Jeff free-weights and an attaboy pep talk.
If you feel a little bad for laughing, that’s fine — you’re supposed to do both.
The movie focuses on Dahmer’s senior year in high school and is based on an award-winning graphic memoir by John “Derf” Backderf, a high school friend who went on to fame as the creator of the independent comic strip “The City.”
Much of the film was shot in Dahmer’s hometown in Ohio, including the house where he grew up, and several Louisvillians are cast in supporting roles.
Social pariah Dahmer is adopted by Derf and a small group of talented misfits (they call themselves the Dahmer Fan Club) after Dahmer begins to fake having seizures and otherwise acting out at school. What follows is often an unnerving hybrid of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004).
The Fan Club edits Dahmer into every club photo for the yearbook; they barge their way into a brief interview with Vice President Walter Mondale (Louisvillian Tom Luce); and generally illicit anxious chuckles as they and the audience laugh at — not with — the imbalanced teen.
When the high school druggie asks Dahmer why he carries a plastic bag, he says: “I use it to pick up road kill, but I am trying to quit.” Sorry, that’s funny.
The comedic tone is all the darker because Meyers never for a moment allows you to believe Dahmer has any hope to avoid his fate. The film’s first scene depicts him stalking a local jogger he finds sexually attractive; he spends much of his time in a shed behind his house dissolving dead animals in jars of acid. His family life is nightmarishly dysfunctional. He’s bullied at school. His favorite musician is Neil Sadaka.
All the clichéd backstory we know to be true, but still don’t understand. Lots of kids are picked on and struggle with their identity, but almost none of them grow up to kill and eat people. Ultimately, we don’t know why it happens. And that’s what makes serial killers so frightening.
As Dahmer’s senior year draws to a close, his ties to the Fan Club begin to fray, as his own mental state deteriorates and the other kids (along with the audience) begin to feel guilty about exploiting him for a few laughs. The laughs are traded out for constant dramatic tension.
It’s an artful transition in tone, and the film’s real strength.
Former Disney and family pop band star Ross Lynch is winning rave reviews as Dahmer, and they are largely deserved. But the best performance is turned in by Alex Wolff as Derf, whose guilt over the Fan Club drives the film’s dramatic climax, its best scene.
Many supporting performances stand out, especially Louisvillian Sydney Meyer as Dahmer’s prom date. It’s honestly impossible to tell if she’s horrified by the experience just because she’s a freshman at the senior prom with a major nerd, or because she can sense that her date is homicidally deranged.
Milan Chakraborty, one of the film’s producers, tells Insider that he pushed for Louisville screenings of “My Friend Dahmer” after strong initial screenings last weekend in New York and Los Angeles led to the film’s distribution list growing from 15 to 40 cities.
Chakraborty, who produced Chris Dowling’s “Where Hope Grows” in Louisville in 2013 and now says he considers himself something of a local, said he wanted the independent film to screen here since he knows the demand for such films is growing in the city.
“My Friend Dahmer” starts today, Nov. 10, and will screen through the weekend at Village 8, and Chakraborty said he hopes more screenings will be added if interest is high.