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My Friend Dahmer: The feel-good serial killer movie of the year

Review by Sean Kennerly.

Nothing brings a room full of strangers together like a psychotic misanthrope. As I sat alone in the third row, twenty minutes early, listening to the piped in muzak, admiring the gentle people as they entered the theater, I realized I felt a giddy camaraderie with everyone there, in a way I almost never feel at the movies. I wanted to know everyone there, what they all looked like, what they had decided to wear to this movie. Who was the guy in the Nike jogging outfit? Had he come straight from the gym to see this? What was with the group of fourteen or so Indian people that came in at the last minute – were they a Dahmer fan club? A tall blonde woman sat next to me wearing a fuzzy white angora sweater and a super-short houndstooth miniskirt over black leggings – was this not the best possible outfit for a serial killer movie?

Without ads or previews the movie began (what would you advertise before a Dahmer movie? Soilex?), showing high school sophomore Jeffrey Dahmer on the school bus ride home, eyeing a dead cat out the window, then fixating on a male jogger as the bus crawled by, and I was sold.

The film itself is a masterpiece in restraint, thankfully free of any moralizing or psychological explaining of what lead Dahmer to his gruesome obsessions. It focuses entirely on Dahmer’s last years in high school, immediately before his ‘career’ began. If the names were changed, this would still be an excellent coming-of-age movie, like Welcome to the Dollhouse but with more animal dismemberment.

Real-life Disney star and singer for pop family-band R5 Ross Lynch somehow, miraculously, perfectly pulls off the stoop-shouldered Dahmer as he drinks his awkward way through early manhood, dismembering and preserving various creatures in a shed behind his parent’s house as a hobby. Dahmer’s classmates don’t know quite what to make of him, alternating between revulsion and a curious if distant admiration. Satisfyingly, director Marc Meyers sticks to known accounts in telling of Dahmer’s teen years, never straying far from things that witnesses say actually occurred.

There is remarkably little bloodshed in the movie, but that only serves to make the tension even more bristling. You know what’s coming, but Meyers isn’t trying to tell you that it’s because of any one thing, or rather he points to so many possibilities that there can’t be one determining factor, and the story flows quite well without trying to explain Dahmer’s blossoming insanity.

But the true genius of this movie is that it normalizes the monster. You laugh along with Jeffrey as he bumbles through uncomfortable teen moments. You empathize with his sadness and confusion as his parents marriage disintegrates to a bitter divorce. You drink along with him when he seeks to bury the insipidity of teenage social life beneath a haze of alcohol. And by the time he picks up shirtless hitchhiker Steven Hicks (Dave Sorboro), you’re practically cheering him on for his coming rampage.

‘My Friend Dahmer’ is out now in select theaters

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