Starring Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts, Tommy Nelson. Directed by Marc Meyers.
Society has a macabre fascination with serial killers, real or fictional. Not only do we adore the stories of people being truly evil, we love the psychological insight that goes into making an evil person even more. Documentaries, dramas, books, and even computer games have explored the complex series of traumas, mistakes and societal injustices that breed pure, blackhearted evil. After all, fictional killers get origin story after origin story – but rarely do we get the rise of the true to life one. Perhaps we don’t like the uncanny element in it.
My Friend Dahmer is an uncomfortable watch. The film has been adapted from two sources – the well publicised true story of a serial killer in waiting, and on the testimony of graphic novelist John “Derf” Backderf, who wrote the original graphic novel of the same name. Director and screenwriter Marc Meyers, and Backderf himself play things surprisingly hard. For those unaware, Jeffrey Dahmer, an Ohio born and raised kid, would become infamous for killing, raping and mutilating 17 men and boys in sexually related attacks between 1978 and 1991.
Meyers plays this film like a quiet study of teenage exclusion, to which it feels less like a villain origin story, or Milwaukee Monster: The Beginning, but something that feels more in tune with Ghost World or Lost in Translation. Meyers and Backderf are not condoning what would follow, but looking at what cocktail of mistakes society can unleash on a person to bring about the horrors that would follow.
The film is played in a way that is more of an impending tragedy than anything else; there’s little in the way of explicit horror and rather things that seem worrisome after the fact. It’s the horror of hindsight: we know what is coming, and through that realise the warning signs, the things we as a society should look for, were being missed.
Ross Lynch is pitch perfect in the role of Jeff Dahmer, a lonely, isolated boy, unsure of his place in the world. Admittedly alarm bells ring when he constantly talks of liking bones and roadkill, but what cuts deeper is his repressed homosexuality; he so clearly longs for a nearby jogger that it cannot come out in anything that isn’t a tragic ending. Lynch, perhaps best known for his work in wholesome Disney Channel shows, sheds his Disney image in a way so few others have managed easily. Unlike the likes of Anne Hathaway, Vanessa Hudgens or Lindsey Lohan, he hasn’t opted to flash his privates in drug-fuelled films, nor the Zac Efron route of so-so frat boy comedies. Lynch is a dead ringer for Dahmer, but moreover, he makes him a human, with both flaws and with virtues.
Oddly enough it’s in the character of Backderf that the film almost finds a villain. Alex Wolff plays Backderf, a kid looking for an out of a small town. He has a gift for drawing, and a budding romance, but there’s little in the way to endear us to him. Not only this, but while his two other friends see some kind of issue in the clear abuse of a lonely boy’s need to be liked, Backderf just thinks it’s a gas – paying Dahmer to “do a Dahmer” or pretend to have seizures or cerebral palsy. Perhaps this is the work of a man who regrets his inability to see the signs and has a level of guilt, a sort of survivors guilt by osmosis.
For anyone who has listened to the podcast series All Killa No Filla (and you should, it’s laugh-out-loud funny), then many of the story beats may seem like “oh yeah I forgot that!”. There are elements of black humour in the film, trading on some of the gall of the kid who blagged his way into a chat with the then-Vice President, as well as a perverse joy in his antics.
Oddly enough, the film doesn’t attempt to demonise the parents, but they do play them in a broadly comic way. Dallas Roberts as Jeff’s father is a dead ringer at times for D-Fens in Falling Down – the kind of buttoned-down clerk who has a rage building beneath them, pleading with his son to be normal. While Anne Heche, a great actress, falls into a weird version of The Republic of Telly’s Bridget, which in itself is funny but feels misplaced in a film that is trying to be real, and honest without feeling ridiculous. Perhaps this comes from the recollections of a fifty-year-old man remembering his teenage years, but it still feels a little extreme in a film that never puts devil horns on a soon-to-be serial killer.
There is a melancholic feel to the film, as it builds to an ending we know is worse than any high school pain. But even so, the film is a portrait of a boy trying his best not to lose his mind as the world conspires to isolate him. It’s not an easy watch, certainly anyone with a passing knowledge will cringe and squirm at certain points, but it’s a sensitive and introspective portrait of what can happen when we don’t see the signs.