Ross Lynch (center) in My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer
(which is now playing at Webster Place) takes place in 1978, and the movie evokes a certain type of filmmaking that flourished in the U.S. around that time—an improbable mixture of art house sensibilities and exploitation-movie content. Dahmer draws viewers in with a provocative title, which promises to reveal intimate secrets about serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, then refuses to deliver any details about his crimes. Rather, it’s a portrait of the killer as a young man—the movie depicts Dahmer’s senior year of high school and the events leading up to his first murder. Director Marc Meyers, adapting a graphic novel by Derf Backderf, exploits viewers’ curiosity about Dahmer’s gruesome actions to raise open-ended questions about what turns a human being into a monster.

Meyers adds another layer of morbid curiosity to the proceedings by casting former kids’ TV star Ross Lynch as the young Dahmer, a move that recalls the Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son (1993) as well as Harmony Korine’s more recent Spring Breakers (2012). Dahmer is designed around the perverse spectacle of watching the just-adequate Lynch struggle with a part beyond his reach—Meyers often puts him in the middle of neatly composed off-center frames, as if showcasing the main attraction. The strategy feels cruel, and it’s distracting as well. Meyers wants to say something about how alienating the suburban high school experience can be, yet he also wants to make a freak show out of his star. When the young Dahmer dissolves dead animals in acid so he can play with their skeletons, we’re meant to think of the atrocious things he’ll do to human beings as an adult—after we register our shock at seeing innocent young Lynch do it.

Dahmer contains lots of portentous, static long takes that were popular in art movies about ten to 15 years ago; the main point of reference seems to be Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), which was itself inspired by Alan Clarke, Bela Tarr, and Chantal Akerman. Elephant, a fictionalized account of the Columbine High School shootings, inspired a sort of frozen panic, playing on viewers’ knowledge of an impending massacre to make the everyday actions that precede it seem chillingly final. Dahmer aims for a similar effect with its studious depictions of the title character’s relatively normal home and school life. They seem tainted, rendered obscene, by the man Dahmer will become—in dramatizing these events, Meyers seems to have broken a taboo. Yet any genuine shock is undermined by Lynch’s near-jokey presence, which makes the whole enterprise feel like a stunt.

<i>My Friend Dahmer</i>
My Friend Dahmer

At least the film is aware of its own exploitive methods; a major plot development concerns Dahmer’s exploitation by a group of boys he meets in the high school band. These boys are fascinated by the socially maladroit Dahmer, who mostly keeps to himself but occasionally flips out around groups of people (making strange noises, pretending to have seizures, and getting into others’ personal space). Feeling like outsiders themselves, the boys make Dahmer their mascot, bring him along when they hang out, and goad him into freaking out in public; one of them (a stand-in for Backderf) draws comic strips that feature exaggerated versions of Dahmer. The object of the boys’ condescending affection seems not to mind that his new friends don’t really like him—Dahmer’s so aloof that he simply accepts their abuse as part of his life, just like he accepts the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s emotional breakdowns.

My Friend Dahmer
is at its most provocative when it considers this dynamic between the exploiters and the exploited. In making Dahmer feel like a freak, did the boys push him over the edge into a murderous contempt for all people? Had they befriended him in earnest, would he have turned out differently? Or had Dahmer started thinking about killing strangers before he met these teenaged assholes? Moreover, is there any difference between what Backderf and his friends did to Dahmer in high school and what Backderf and Meyers do to him with their book and movie?

The film doesn’t resolve these questions, as it provides little insight into Dahmer’s interior life; like the shooters in Elephant, he remains a closed book. What does become clear over the course of My Friend Dahmer is just how stifling and awful high school (at least in late-70s suburban Ohio) can be. The movie contains no adult role models who might teach Dahmer empathy; the grown-ups all seem pathetic, whether their lives are coming apart (as in the case of Dahmer’s mother) or held together by meaningless routines. No one seems to be learning anything in the scenes set in class, and the filmmakers make extracurricular activities seem pointless too. Even a class trip to Washington, D.C., (where Dahmer and his clique manage to score a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale) feels arbitrary and joyless—something high school seniors do because it’s expected of them. The film doesn’t go so far as to argue that Dahmer’s high school experience made him a murderer. But its pessimistic view (made uglier by Meyers’s exploitive tendencies) is that high school couldn’t have helped him either.