He has the awkward gait of a zombie in training. He stares, uncomfortably, and drinks secretly at school. He's fascinated by the insides of creatures. But he's also confused by sexuality, he suffers under warring parents, and he likes being a class cutup.
To watch "My Friend Dahmer," about the high school age Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) during the year before he became a killer, then a cannibal, then a household name, one can't help but put oneself in the position of armchair forensic psychologist. Was he obviously insane? Or did he just look like another loner kid who got lost in the caste-like swirl of adolescence?
Thankfully, "My Friend Dahmer" doesn't come off solely like a spot-the-clues exercise. Writer/director Marc Meyers' fine adaptation of real-life Dahmer schoolmate Derf Backderf's graphic novel — anchored by former Disney star Lynch's mesmerizing turn peering out of David Soul hair — is more interested in capturing something mysterious, sad, even funny, and eventually terrifying about the edge of 17. At its best, when sensitivity and squirmy honesty collide, it feels like a Very Special Episode of "Freaks & Geeks."
It's 1978 when we meet the dead-eyed, picked-on Jeffrey, a time when he was most decidedly in his own world in small-town Ohio: dissolving roadkill in jars for the bones, obsessed with the bearded jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) who routinely passes his house, and avoiding home strife between a jittery mother (Anne Heche) recently out of a mental institution and a beleaguered father (Dallas Roberts) concerned for his friendless teenage son. (Heche and Roberts give exquisitely nervous performances.)
There are early lines of dialogue that are a little too on the nose — mom, chastised for her cooking, saying "We eat our own mistakes," and dad telling his wife, "We need to talk about Jeff" — but for the most part, Meyers' coolly dispassionate, observant shotmaking gives us a quiet portrait of simmering unsettledness.
Suddenly an opening for sociability arises when a clique of brainy, confident nerds led by Derf (Alex Wolff) turn their irony-laden humor toward befriending Jeffrey. They start the Dahmer Fan Club, mostly built around pranks in which Jeffrey feigns spasmic seizures in public, or inserts himself into club photos for the yearbook. He likes his new clown status and the feeling of inclusion, although Derf's cohorts are clearly more like friends laughing at him than with him.
But when Jeffrey's parents eventually split, and the first inklings of his homosexuality emerge, Jeffrey's inability to handle private turmoil begins to overwhelm him. His interest in dissection returns, and he starts withdrawing from people again.
There's nothing graphic about "My Friend Dahmer" (besides the roadkill), because of where it stops in the timeline. But that doesn't mean there isn't a worrisome shroud of doom Meyers slowly pulls over the last act of the movie. The director's approach to his subject, aided by cinematographer Daniel Katz's composed camerawork, is an eerie combination of the campfire and the clinical: a bogeyman prequel of sorts, with character details like diagnostic footnotes, and a few sequences that wouldn't be out of place in a slow-burn '70s horror film.
It's the naturalism that wins the day, however, coated in a palpable sadness about the kind of psychosis that goes undiagnosed until it's too late. Credit the solid cast, led by Lynch, who shows just enough on-the-fritz humanity behind his young eyes to effectively modulate this darkening of a soul. The world may never tire of being fascinated with serial killers, but "My Friend Dahmer" avoids exploitation often enough to forge its own perceptive, tense, character-driven path.
Rating: R for disturbing images, language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood