There’s usually always one. The slightly awkward loner in school; the social outcast whose interests include tennis, band practice, binge-drinking and, you know, dissolving dead animal carcasses in acid. For Revere High in Ohio, during the seventies, that kid was Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch).
Based on fellow classmate, John ‘Derf’ Backderf’s bestselling graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer takes place during a very specific timeframe, the graduating year of 1977-78. The isolated teenage Dahmer makes friends (well, almost) with Derf (Alex Wolff), Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer) as they look forward to college and a life beyond the oppressive institution that is high school. For Dahmer, it was the year his warring parents (played respectively by Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts) finally divorced and abandoned him just prior to his first (human) kill.
Backderf’s comic – the original source material for Director Marc Meyer’s script – is a stark portrait, weirdly grotesque with a sweet and sinister edge. It depicts high school as a cruel and relatable experience, that yearning to fit in, the shelter it provides from the harsher outside world, and that’s just for every other kid who doesn’t grow up to be a killer. There’s a tenderness in Derf’s pages as he recounts his life as a teenager looking in on the kid that doesn’t belong. Sadly, by changing the narrative point-of-view, the film loses that originality and becomes yet another character study depicting the early years of a serial killer. The coming-of-age aspect and the odd pacing means, as a whole, it never quite coalesces.
That said, there are nice touches, little story kernels which hint at the future: the gifting of the dumbbells, the choice of roommate on the class trip, even his mother – not afforded much screentime but played brilliantly by Heche – declaring at the dinner table that they now “eat their mistakes”. The mise-en-scène tends to consist of yellows, greens, browns and blues and Dahmer’s costumes co-ordinate with the surroundings. He blends into the background, hiding in plain sight, repressing his hinted-at sexuality and more macabre predilections until that fateful day he chose to pick up Steven Hicks.
Ross Lynch’s performance is chilling – he has the vacant stare and distinctive gait down, second only to Jeremy Renner’s portrayal in the 2003 biopic Dahmer. Somewhat apt given that this film could act as a pre-cursor to that one. The first half of the serial killer’s life as it were. Given his tumultuous family life, it is easy to pity the strange and lonely boy depicted in this film, however, any sympathy is limited. Feigning meltdowns, ridiculing and mimicking palsy, reenacting his mother’s manic episodes AKA ‘spaz attacks’ as entertainment reveals the darker side of Jeff’s nature even before the murders, necrophilia and cannibalism.
My Friend Dahmer is a somewhat unremarkable and slight study of a psychopath in the suburban seventies. It lacks the nuance and honesty of the source material but manages to humanise the human before he became a monster and begs the question: where were all the adults?