School days be­fore the se­rial killing started

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST MOVIES - Chris Knight My Friend Dah­mer opens Nov. 10 in Toronto, Mon­treal and Van­cou­ver, with other cities to fol­low.

Sev­eral films have tried to grap­ple with the hor­ror that was se­rial killer Jef­frey Dah­mer. ( A young Jeremy Ren­ner played him in 2002’s Dah­mer.) My Friend Dah­mer is the first to focus en­tirely on the time be­fore his first mur­der, which took place three weeks af­ter he grad­u­ated from high school in 1978. The re­sult is a chill­ing yet oddly re­strained por­trait of de­prav­ity.

The source ma­te­rial is the 2002 graphic novel by John “Derf ” Back­derf ( Alex Wolff in the film), an Amer­i­can car­toon­ist who be­friended Dah­mer in high school and was, to his ev­er­last­ing cha­grin, pres­i­dent of the Dah­mer Fan Club. These were a group of kids who egged on the mis­fit stu­dent’s bizarre an­tics, which in­cluded fake epilep­tic seizures in pub­lic places.

On his own, young Dah­mer had a grisly, grow­ing in­ter­est in an­i­mal anatomy, col­lect­ing dead crea­tures and bleach­ing their bones in acid. ( In one of the few l augh- out- l oud mo­ments in the movie, he tells the school’s pot dealer that he’s into road­kill, “but I’m try­ing to quit.”) He does take to drink­ing, seem­ingly at ran­dom but quickly to ex­cess, and fur­ther alien­at­ing him from his “fans.”

Sto­ries about fu­ture evil­do­ers must tread cau­tiously to avoid sug­gest­ing they know ex­actly what caused a seem­ingly nor­mal per­son to go off the deep end. My Friend Dah­mer avoids one pat di­ag­no­sis by of­fer­ing many — the teenager had a dis­tant fa­ther, an emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble mother and few real friends. At one point he meets the guns- and- knives-ob­sessed Figg, de­scribed as a “to­tal psy­cho” by the other kids. Yet even here we con­front the irony that it’s Dah­mer who is the real dan­ger — just not yet.

My Friend Dah­mer is as watch­able as it is thanks to an un­der­stated cen­tral per­for­mance by Ross Lynch. With his droopy eyes be­hind over­sized glasses and his stooped pos­ture, he cap­tures the sense of the shy, un­cer­tain youth. Yet for all his shenani­gans and “spazz­ing out” for at­ten­tion, there’s an in­tel­li­gence there as well. The scene where Dah­mer en­gi­neers a meet­ing with vice-pres­i­dent Walter Mon­dale dur­ing a class trip to Wash­ing­ton re­ally hap­pened.

Direc­tor Marc Mey­ers brings a steady gaze and some ster­ling pro­duc­tion val­ues to the pic­ture. It truly looks like 1978 Ohio, where Dah­mer went to school.

And by treat­ing its sub­ject se­ri­ously, we’re in­vited to do the same. There’s a scene late in the movie in which an in­creas­ingly creepy Dah­mer in­vites a girl to the prom. When they show up, the pho­tog­ra­pher urges them to move closer to­gether: “She’s not go­ing to bite!” The back-of-the-class voice in the back of my head wanted to an­swer: “But he might!” Then I re­mem­bered the real back-of- the- class types who knew him. The laugh died in my throat. ½

HAND­OUT PHOTO

Ross Lynch, cen­tre, stars as the young Jef­frey Dah­mer in My Friend Dah­mer.

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