Director: Marc Meyers
Writer: Marc Meyers
Producer: Jody Girgenti, Marc Meyers, Adam Goldworm, Michael Merlob, Milan Chakraborty
Stars: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, Vincent Kartheiser, Harrison Holzer, Miles Robbins
Classmates unknowingly witness the evolution of a future serial killer during Jeffrey Dahmer’s senior year of high school.
It’s impossible to stare at John Wayne Gacy in clown makeup and associate his image with anything other than unfathomable evil. Or to see the crazed gaze of Richard Ramirez and remember that his empty eyes once belonged to a child.
Somewhere along their paths to serial killing infamy, such men followed forks that turned them away from normalcy and turned them into monsters. What did their younger lives look like before madness led to murder? What must it be like to be someone who knew them then, a living victim of eternal wonderment over exactly how a murderer was made?
John “Derf” Backderf has answers to both questions. Growing up in Ohio as a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer’s, Backderf witnessed the tumult in the notorious killer’s high school years firsthand, and recounted the experience in his exceptionally enlightening graphic novel. Adapted into film form by writer/director Marc Meyers, “My Friend Dahmer” tells a tragic tale of a teen as invisibly inconsequential as any other, yet fated to be remembered as anything but.
“My Friend Dahmer” plays like a longform “Freaks and Geeks” episode replacing everything funny with portent that is frightening. Dahmer is awkward, fumbling, goofy, and confused. In short, he is outwardly an ordinary 17-year-old lost in a haze of uncertain identity. The unsettling character study remains haunting from prologue to epilogue precisely because of how eerily relatable it feels.
Ross Lynch’s casually chilling performance captures Dahmer fighting to fit in only to find that once he is seemingly there, he still isn’t satisfied. Dahmer is savvy enough to sense that his acceptance as class clown, perpetuated when Derf’s closer pals form a “Dahmer Fan Club” to encourage his disruptive behavior, is not equal to acceptance for who he is, much less for the person he is struggling to be or not be.
Knowing how Dahmer’s adult story unfolds puts ominous import into each otherwise innocuous event onscreen. Every stare, every action, every thought masked by a dour expression provides pause to mull if this is another crossroads that could have ended in a different destination.
Hopelessness bleeds into every scene. In another context, watching a fearless student impressively finagle a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale might be charmingly fun. Yet we are actually witnessing Dahmer developing the silvertongued skills that would later lure victims into his home. Sadness seeps into the sight of those by his side being cheerfully oblivious to the horror being born.
It’s unclear if the movie has a firm opinion on whether or not Jeff could have been prevented from becoming Dahmer. Maybe it doesn’t matter much since he wasn’t. It would be reckless regardless to put the onus on classmates who took odd antics for a laugh, not as irrefutable evidence of greater danger to come. Innumerable possibilities are in play including the broken marriage of Dahmer’s parents, his mother’s mental illness, repressed homosexuality, and out of control urges to see the insides of animals.
“My Friend Dahmer” bites off quite a bit, and not all of it is chewed. In giving much more of the movie to Dahmer than to Derf, the narrative frame’s focus is squarely on the title’s third word when the first two are just as fascinating. Certain scenes selected for inclusion thus do not always tap the same theme. If “My Friend Dahmer” were leaner, its rhythm would be more lithe.
Derf’s recollections no less effectively depict Jeffrey Dahmer as a next-door kid who could have been anyone’s classmate. His story accomplishes a brilliant feat in presenting this particular slice of Dahmer’s life. By disassociating Dahmer from the crimes he would commit, his character is shaped as a pitiably sad personality instead of a purely vile being. “My Friend Dahmer” doesn’t dismiss the man he became, nor does it beg for “poor Jeff” sympathy. Rather, the plea is to consider how he was created through conscious choice as well as troubling circumstances, and how common those conditions could be.
Review Score: 80