We like to think of serial killers, especially those who commit atrocities for perverse sexual pleasure, as less than human. There’s a certain reciprocity in that: murderous psychopaths, who view other people as mere objects to be manipulated for their own enjoyment, are dehumanized in return. We call them “animals,” despite their particular depravity occurring only within our own species, and we refer to them as “monsters,” even though their actions are all too real. On the other hand, their lurid crimes tend to elevate serial killers to celebrity status; they’re given sinister monikers when they remain at large, and become household names upon their capture, their photos and personal histories broadcast far and wide.

With an empathetic gaze that never quite devolves into an origin story or outright glorification, My Friend Dahmer peers into the formative years of the infamous serial killer. Involving cannibalism, necrophilia, mutilation and grisly preservation, Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes are among the most macabre of the 20th century, so it comes as little surprise that he was already a strange guy by high school. But what makes My Friend Dahmer most compelling is that we all probably ran across a weirdo like him in our teenage years, and the film, much like the true-story graphic novel by Derf Backderf on which it’s based, follows an intensely troubled young man whose antics seem unremarkable and relatively harmless, right up until the moment they’re not.

While Dahmer’s shocking murder spree began in earnest in the late ‘80s and accelerated right before his eventual 1991 arrest, he killed his first victim at his family’s home several weeks after his 1978 high school graduation. Ending shortly before this act, My Friend Dahmer illustrates the emotional aloofness of his father (Dallas Roberts) and the addiction and mental health issues of his mother (Anne Heche) that led to their general neglect of Jeff (Ross Lynch) amid the crumbling of their marriage, which certainly seems hurtful but also entirely commonplace. Kids endure their parents’ tempestuous relationships and broken homes all the time without growing up to be serial killers, and Marc Meyers’ film offers these moments of domestic unrest simply as biography rather than explanation.

At school, the lanky, bespectacled Jeff is a misfit who, in the film’s early stages, cuts a similar figure to Napoleon Dynamite, with a mop of dirty-blonde hair in place of red curls. In lieu of friends, he prefers to spend time in his “lab,” a shack on his family’s wooded property where he dissolves roadkill in acid and tinkers with bones. His dad, a chemist who at one point introduced Jeff to the technical knowledge necessary to strip away flesh from skeletons, wants him to make some friends or join some team sports. Jeff stumbles into a clique of sorts at the beginning of his senior year, as he starts “spazzing” in the hallways for attention and catches the eye of a slightly nerdy band of pranksters. They form a Dahmer fan club, egging on Jeff to mimic thrashing epileptic seizures at school or to go berserk and knock stuff over at the mall, pranks they refer to as “Doing a Dahmer.”

But Jeff’s never fully accepted by the group, who largely treats him as a kind of irreverent mascot. He binge-drinks, even sipping alcohol in the classroom, and becomes notorious for his erratic behavior, but he still manages to do normal things like ask a girl to prom. All the while though, the seeds of his eventual depravity slowly begin to manifest, especially as he fantasizes about killing and sleeping with a local doctor (Vincent Kartheiser), who he lecherously watches jog every day.

Of his first victim, whom he invited back to his parents’ vacant home to drink beer, Dahmer cited the fact that the young man “wanted to leave and I didn’t want him to” as the impetus behind the killing. My Friend Dahmer emphasizes a very human sense of loneliness in Jeff, but it doesn’t explore the sadistic element of domination with which his desire for companionship was entwined. Too often, a general sense of apathy defines Dahmer’s youth, and that doesn’t always make for the most compelling cinema.

Despite its title, the film doesn’t offer much actual insight into the friendship between Jeff and John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff) beyond the superficial, which makes the whole endeavor feel slightly exploitative as a result. By framing the book and film as an eyewitness account of Dahmer’s high school years, both Backderf and Meyers curb their ability to delve very far into Jeff’s mental state. This can be a benefit—speculating about what makes a developing psychopath tick is a slippery enterprise. But it’s also a liability: the audience ends up witnessing a fairly mundane story that’s reliant on our prior knowledge of the horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer rather than one that derives much meaning from what is presented to us onscreen.

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