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The Childhood of a Serial Killer could be an alternative title for this queasily gripping movie from writer-director Marc Meyers. It’s about the teenage years of Jeffrey Dahmer in the 1970s and especially his high-school penchant for pretending to have epileptic fits – to the hilarity of his nasty and fickle friends. What sort of a creep mocks people with a physical disability do you imagine? And what sort of a community rewards such a creep with anti-establishment hero status? The film shows the teenage Dahmer going on a school trip to Washington DC, entering the White House and meeting the vice-president, Walter Mondale. The film has embellished things a bit. In real life, Dahmer only got to watch Mondale working and didn’t actually speak to him. But this brings Dahmer closer to America’s current zeitgeist than is comfortable: our world of Donald Trump impersonating the disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski.
My Friend Dahmer is based on the 2012 autobiographical graphic novel by cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf, all about his true-life, high-school acquaintance with Dahmer, who was later to become one of the nation’s most notorious serial murderers. This film shows how Derf (Alex Wolff) and his cool-outsider nerd friends cruelly took up the unhappy and lonely weirdo Dahmer (Ross Lynch), entranced by his loser glasses, short-sleeved shirts and intensively laundered blue jeans. They kept him around as their mascot and cartoon muse, laughing sort-of with him and sort-of at him.
Derf drew him in various ironic poses and encouraged Dahmer to do his bad-taste comedy routine: pretending to have epilepsy or cerebral palsy, moaning and keening and thrashing in shopping malls or school corridors to freak out teachers and members of the public who could never be entirely sure it wasn’t genuine. Gradually, the humiliation dawned on Dahmer and added to the nightmare of his unhappy home life and his festering obsessions.
The key pop culture reference for this grisly situationist wheeze might once have been Lars von Trier’s 1998 film The Idiots, all about a group of people dedicated to “spazzing” in public as an anti-bourgeois theatrical stunt. But this movie puts a different light on things. Did Derf himself create Dahmer the serial killer with his gigglingly ironic drawings? From Ghost World to Napoleon Dynamite, nerds are traditionally the good guys and the underdog heroes. The revenge of the nerds means that victimised geeks will inherit the earth, from Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who emerged from their own unhappy schooldays to become creators of South Park and Team America: World Police. My Friend Dahmer taps into something else: the dark side of geekdom, geek rage and geek hate. And mightn’t Dahmer himself have congratulated himself on his nerd destiny: the loser who became super-famous while his tormentors just peaked in high school?
Ross Lynch is eerily good as Dahmer, like a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman – stolidly silent, heavy-footed, incubating his resentments. He has a shed out in the yard for dissolving roadkill animals in acid, a preoccupation very much disapproved of by his dad Lionel (Dallas Roberts) who nonetheless senses that Jeff may have inherited this obsessional quality from him. Anne Heche is hilarious as Jeff’s boozy, unstable mother who is a terrible cook and insists the family eat her calamitous dishes as a learning experience. “We eat our mistakes,” she says cheerily – an unfortunate motto, considering her son’s later adventures in cannibalism – and she will later hurt Jeff’s feelings during the divorce proceedings by appearing to argue that she should be given custody of his younger brother Dave (Liam Koeth) while not caring about Jeff. Meanwhile, Jeff cultivates his own obsession with animal cruelty and with stalking the town doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs past his house every other day.
As ever, it is high school that is the theatre of cruelty, an arena of fear and harm and an unforgettably important place where, for many, life itself is real in a way it will never be again. The film bears the traces of its graphic-novel origin in the black-comic foregrounding of faces, characters, situations marooned in ennui and dismay. Derf himself never quite faces up to what he has arguably done, although there is a cold-sweat moment when it looks as if he will receive the serial-killer version of poetic justice. His friendship with Dahmer was never to be consummated.
Source: The Guardian
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