The crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer with a penchant for young men, are a notorious black mark on 20th Century America. Between 1978 and 1991, he murdered seventeen young men, keeping body parts are trophies. It was only when one potential victim escaped and flagged down police officers that the true extent of his crimes was revealed.
My Friend Dahmer focuses upon Dahmer’s time in high school leading up to his graduation, an awkward teenager coming to terms with himself and the darkness therein. Lost in the world of teenagers, Dahmer’s obsession with roadkill, with a jogging neighbour and growing bizarre behaviour sees him become something of a celebrity amongst those who had previously ignored or mocked him. As his psychopathy grows, his graduation approaches and the true nature of Dahmer comes closer to the surface.
Ross Lynch gives a stunning performance as Dahmer, capturing the weakness as well as the strength of conviction of the young man as his family collapses and his behaviour becomes more unhinged. It’s a career-making performance accompanied by that of Anne Heche as his mother, Dallas Roberts as the father and Vincent Kartheiser as Dr Matthews, the jogger who becomes the object of Dahmer’s fascination.
Based on a graphic novel by John Backderf, who has been friends with Dahmer in high school, My Friend Dahmer does a credible job of humanising someone who would be condemned as an evil monster because of his actions. It’s easy to forget, whilst labelling the serial killer as such, that he was human, victim to the same perils and obsessions around him. Dahmer, however, would take his obsessions to extremes.
Alex Wolff portrays Backderf, the founder of the “Dahmer Fan Club”, a fickle group who would exploit Dahmer for their own amusement. As with Lynch, Wolff is impressive in the role of the outsider befriending outsiders. There are touches of remorse in their behaviour, but it’s quickly dismissed for the next prank and opportunity to be accepted.
Backderf’s work, translated to the screen by Marc Meyers, is a coming of age story with a dark undertone and it is equally chilling and sad. Backderf, as someone who was so close to Dahmer, gives us an insight that few writers can truly offer and it’s impossible not to sympathise with Dahmer in this film as we see him as he was during these years; a teenager with a dissolving family looking for a way to fit in whilst being at odds with those around him. He’s a teenager with a small circle of friends, a natural awkwardness that belies his intelligence and an inability to fit in despite being the blond-haired American that he is.
Backderf’s friends in the Dahmer Fan Club aren’t the cool kids and Meyers brings this perfectly to the screen thank to the performances of his cast. They’re not the lowest on the school pecking order, nor the highest, they’re just somewhere in between. They exist without being seen and, as they push Dahmer to more extreme behaviour, we see just how cruel and selfish teenagers can be. It’s not an excuse for Dahmer’s later behaviour, it’s just how teenagers are in schools around the world, for better or for worse and we see the limits of this friendship at various stages whilst Dahmer’s behaviour continues to spiral.
My Friend Dahmer is beautifully shot by Daniel Katz, scenes of Dahmer’s cruelty are mixed with the school and homelife scenes that are cruel in their own way, all bathed in the sunshine of his Ohio surroundings. Even the upbeat music of Andrew Hollander manages to unsettle as the story progresses without ever being oppressive or ominous. If there’s one thing to say about the audio-visual experience, it’s that the darkness of the character is wrought in the lightness of his world.
My Friend Dahmer is less about a serial killer and more about the young man he was, the family life, his school life and his attempts to navigate a society that he doesn’t quite understand yet of which he is very much a part. Watching this film, the balance is wonderfully struck between awkward teen movie replete with all the pitfalls of American high school and its hierarchies, dark family drama about the imperfections of one’s parents and black comedy about a young man wanting to fit in but never quite getting there; it’s a film that succeeds on all level and delivers with candid honesty.
The DVD release of My Friend Dahmer disappointingly features no extras, a missed opportunity to expand on what we’ve just witnessed and the recollections of Backderf.
Dir: Marc Meyers
Scr: Marc Meyers
Cast: Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff, Vincent Kartheiser
Prd: Giorgio Angelini
DOP: Daniel Katz
Country: United States
Runtime: 107 mins
My Friend Dahmer is available on DVD and digital now.