In some ways, “My Friend Dahmer” is a typical coming-of-age movie about an awkward teen. What distinguishes this particular case of adolescent angst is that it’s the true story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Based on the comic-book memoir by Derf Backderf, who went to high school with Dahmer in rural Ohio in the late 1970s, the movie observes young Jeff (Ross Lynch) in his senior year. He seems creepy from the start.
We watch as the surly teen stares out the school bus window at a roadside jogger (Vincent Kartheiser, of “Mad Men”). At home, we see Dahmer’s collection of roadkill, kept in jars of acid to dissolve the flesh. The frequent target of school bullies, Dahmer is neglected by the adults in his life as well, and is disturbed by the fractured relationship between his mother and father (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts).
Lynch, a Disney Channel veteran, nails the creep factor and effectively portrays Dahmer’s struggle with homosexuality. But for the first half-hour, the movie seems to check off items on a list of Young Serial Killer Warning Signs. It gets better when the story breaks with that template, and Dahmer, desperate for connection, gains the unlikely friendship and admiration of other high school misfits — including budding cartoonist Derf (Alex Wolff) — by pretending to have epileptic seizures.
In the epilogue to his graphic novel, Backderf explained that, in 1991, when his wife called to tell him that a former classmate had confessed to murdering 17 young men, his first guess was not Dahmer. Writer-director Marc Meyers makes “My Friend Dahmer” a convincing high school drama, but his portrait of the serial killer as a young man telegraphs Dahmer’s future all too clearly.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing images, coarse language, teen drug use, drinking, sexuality and nudity. 107 minutes.