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My Friend Dahmer fascinating, but frustrating

Killer drama's strength lies within compassion, complicity and retrospective horror

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2018 (1000 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This cinematic "portrait of the serial killer as a young man" is a tricky proposition, asking us to feel for someone who seems to lack feeling. Based on the award-winning 2012 graphic novel by John "Derf" Backderf, who just happened to be a high school classmate of real-life multiple murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, this fascinating, but frustrating drama attempts to examine the beginnings of evil without excusing or explaining that evil away.

Writer-director Marc Meyers isn’t irresponsible. He avoids sensationalizing the material — using restraint when tracking young Jeff’s growing fascination with dead bodies, for example. But he seems confused by the enormity of his subject, searching through the first stages of Dahmer’s violent compulsions — which later led to the murder of 17 young men and boys — without finding much important or original to say.

Ultimately, the adolescent Jeff (Ross Lynch,) bullied at school and neglected at home, remains a creepy cipher in My Friend Dahmer. Meyers’ depictions of the all-too-ordinary cruelties of an average American high school, on the other hand, are finely observed and insightful, aided by solid ensemble performances.

FilmRise</p><p>Ross Lynch (centre) plays Jeffrey Dahmer, a stark transition from his Disney Channel and pop singer days.</p>

FilmRise

Ross Lynch (centre) plays Jeffrey Dahmer, a stark transition from his Disney Channel and pop singer days.

The setting is middle-class Midwestern American in the late 1970s, recreated in perfect denim-and-Adidas detail. Scenes of Jeff’s wretched home life are actually shot in the house near Akron, Ohio, where Dahmer grew up — and where he committed his first murder — which adds undeniable authenticity, but also seems a bit icky in that fetishistic true-crime way.

Slope-shouldered and stiff-gaited with an opaque gaze, Jeff Dahmer, at this point in his life, is an odd kid who is shunned and bullied. His face and voice convey only a shallow emotional affect, every so often cut with a sudden, terrible flash of need. It’s a startling and strong performance by Lynch, a former Disney Channel star and teen pop singer making a stark transition into darker adult roles. (Probably best to keep tween fans away from this project.)

Jeff is fascinated with roadkill, placing the bodies of dead animals in acid supplied by his chemist father.

He is obsessed with a handsome jogger (Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men), whose movements he tracks with scary precision. He also drinks before, during and after school with the joyless, relentless efficiency of a hardened alcoholic.

There is a notable lack of adult intervention or even attention. Jeff’s father, Lionel (The Walking Dead’s Dallas Roberts), is well-intentioned, but ineffectual and floundering and his mother, Joyce (Anne Heche of TV’s Aftermath), is a self-absorbed, passive-aggressive Freudian nightmare. (Some of the compassion given to the young Dahmer might have been extended to Joyce, who is struggling with mental illness, but is reduced to a shrill harpy.)

Meyers does better with the ordinary problems of Derf (Alex Wolff of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and his friends — brainy, sardonic outcasts who wear Ramones T-shirts and ask the homecoming queen how it feels to know her best years are behind her.

While the popular kids are joining Debate Club and Glee Club and Pep Club, Derf and his friends form the Dahmer Fan Club.

They hang out with Jeff, but are not exactly his friends. Instead, they treat him like a mascot, a wayward pet, encouraging him to stretch the limits of his anti-social behaviour, which includes attention-getting stunts like faking seizures at the mall. They even invent a term for these hijinks: they call it "doing a Dahmer."

Of course, not everyone who is poorly parented and picked on in high school becomes a serial killer and Jeff’s crossover from victim to victimizer feels both over-determined and vague.

As an account of a serial killer, then, My Friend Dahmer doesn’t quite work. Instead it is Derf’s story, with its uncomfortable mixture of compassion, complicity and retrospective horror, where the film’s real strength lies.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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