More than a week after watching writer-director Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, I’m still trying to figure out who exactly the film is meant for and why on earth it was made. I’ve got nothing. It’s not exactly news to say that Americans have always had a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with horrific crimes and the criminals who perpetrate them. We read about their deeds and watch them on tabloid news shows all the while thinking “there but for the grace of God….” But we’re also a country that feels compelled to look for the why in these things. What childhood demons, what psychological issues drove this person to do the unspeakable things they did? After all, there’s a kind of comfort to be found there, too.

My Friend Dahmer is competently made, it features some decent performances, and it moves along with a creeping sense of imminent dread and doom — we know the grisly horrors that will unfold after the end credits roll. But again…why? I don’t want to sound like I’m getting on my hind legs or come off as holier than thou, but watching the film, I took offense to being asked to sympathize with its clearly troubled protagonist and the formative years of someone who would grow up to rape, murder, dismember, and cannibalize 17 young men.

My Friend Dahmer is a small independent film, so it feels cruel to pick on it too much. And it will have some wanna-see appeal for fans of former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch (Austin & Ally), who deserves credit for going to the dark side and dabbling in more serious, adult fare. And the 21-year-old actor is fine, hiding behind big nerdy glasses and walking down the high school hallway gauntlet in the sort of meek, loping gait that suggests someone extremely uncomfortable in his own skin. But everything else about the film feels miscalculated, soliciting sympathy that doesn’t feel deserved or particularly earned by what’s on screen.

The tell-tale, shorthand signs of Dahmer’s troubled childhood are telegraphed from the get-go: the picked-on, awkward loner sitting by himself on the school bus; the morbid obsession with picking up road kill and dissolving the animal carcasses in acid in his father’s shed; a high-strung, unstable mother (Anne Heche) who favors his younger brother; the “friends” at school who let him tag along as a sort of quirky mascot when they’re not making fun of him behind his back; the stolen episodes of drinking behind his school; the homosexual confusion that’s channeled into ideations of violence. He’s like the world’s most obvious ticking timebomb.

My Friend Dahmer wants to tell the “story before the story” of one of America’s most notorious serial killers — a psychic snapshot of the young man who turned into a monster. But it can’t decide at whose feet it wants to lay the blame or what point it hopes to make beyond that Jeffrey was a victim long before he would claim victims of his own. One of the only moments of the movie that feels artfully done is the ending. Dahmer, who has just graduated from high school is driving his father’s red VW bug and stops for a hitchhiker, who introduces himself as Steven Hicks — the man who would become Dahmer’s first victim. It’s an interesting idea: Ending the film at the beginning. But by that point, it’s too little too late. C–

My Friend Dahmer
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