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The Tribeca Film Festival never ceases to delight us. In today’s recap, we have a nuanced portrait of a serial killer in the making, a provocative time capsule of Ronald Reagan, and an intriguing biographical drama.

My Friend Dahmer
Director: Marc Meyers
Category: Viewpoints, Narrative

What we have here is a two-hour movie about a notorious serial killer, without a single bit of serial killing. Alternative (bad) titles for My Friend Dahmer could include Dahmer: The Teenage Years! or Dahmer: Origins. It’s easy to make dumb jokes about former Nickelodeon star Ross Lynch playing a high school-aged Jeffrey Dahmer, but it’s admittedly a great idea for a movie. Based on a graphic novel of the same name (written by a classmate of Dahmer), My Friend Dahmer mostly succeeds in presenting a compelling Portrait of the Murderer as a Young Man.

As far as directing jobs go, this one is pretty tough. Since this is a movie about Dahmer the Kid rather than Dahmer the Killer, Meyers has to keep things interesting for an audience who knows that this is all taking place before any of the infamous crimes. Meyers has to trust that his subject’s bizarre acts as a teenager are interesting enough in their own right; and they are! It’s fascinating to see what Jeff is like as a kid – sometimes he serves as a court jester for a group of friends who call themselves the “Dahmer Fan Club” (though his classmates may be laughing at him more than they’re laughing with him). Other times–like when he dissolves animal carcasses he finds by the side of the road in vats of acid—it’s easier to picture the man he’ll eventually become.

Meyers has a great eye for detail, studiously recreating the 1970s suburbs of Akron, Ohio. Creepily enough, the movie was not only filmed in Dahmer’s hometown, but in his own childhood home. Keeping that in mind while watching the movie helps put the proceedings on a whole new plane of uncomfortable. Much credit also goes to the cast, especially Ross Lynch, who portrays Dahmer with the proper amount of nuance.

The Reagan Show
Directors: Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill
Category: Documentary Competition

The Reagan Show is made up of tons of fascinating footage, whether it be news broadcasts or video shot by members of the Reagan administration. To use nothing but archival footage is a fascinating (and effective) approach to documentary. There are no talking heads here explaining Reagan’s legacy to the audience, and no voiceover narration telling us what to think. All that’s here to tell the story of Ronald Reagan is contemporaneous footage that speaks entirely for itself.

This method makes the documentary much more immediate. Instead of being subject to the inherent bias of “experts” commenting on the past, we’re experiencing Reagan as those at the time would’ve experienced him. Most importantly, this allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The only real “wink, wink” moment comes early on when Reagan, in a speech, utters the phrase “make America great again.”

At the very least, The Reagan Show offers a quick history lesson through use of archival footage. At best, it offers a commentary on the nature of the presidency and the ways in which it’s shaped by video and the media – though, again, the viewer will have to do that thinking for themselves, making the film all the better.

Tom of Finland
Director: Dome Karukoski
Category: International Narrative Competition

Many will go into Tom of Finland without a clue as to who Touko Laaksonen was. Let’s get the history out of the way: Touko (popularly known as Tom of Finland) was a Finnish artist, popular for his iconic homoerotic drawings of big, muscular men. If you’re at all skeptical about the dramatic heft that could be pulled from such a subject, Dome Karukoski’s film will put your mind at ease. In fact, Tom of Finland just might be the best film in this year’s International Narrative Competition.

The usual biopic beats are all here; Tom of Finland is just a really great take on the usual formula. The unfamiliarity with the subject might actually be a boon, since the audience will be eager to see exactly where the story goes. After returning home from World War II, Touko finds himself living with his sister and working as an artist at an ad agency. But on top of the ghosts he carries from the war, he’s forced to hide his homosexuality in a society that treats it as a crime. In secret, he draws stuff like muscly dudes in leather suits, keeping them hidden from his sister – but when he begins selling these drawings to American magazine publishers, he starts making quite a name for himself as “Tom of Finland.”

Touko’s struggles at hiding who he is at home in Finland are contrasted with the way he’s welcomed with open arms in 1970s Los Angeles. In that way, the film serves as not just the story of one man, but as the story of attitudes toward homosexuality in post-World War II society at large. It’s an often inspiring (and sad) film about the struggle to find one’s place in life.

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