I saw My Friend Dahmer on a rainy Sunday in Seattle last month. Appropriate weather for the dreary story of one of the most sadistic killers of the modern era. The usher tore my ticket, pointed me in the right direction and said “Have fun” before I made my way into the dim theater. They probably didn’t realize what film they had told me to “have fun” watching but it struck me. The printing on the ticket cutoff before Dahmer. Meaning all the ticket said was “My Friend” which in a way helped put this film into perspective. This isn’t an effort to paint Jeffrey Dahmer as an antihero or a figure we should root for. It’s a film about somebody’s friend, somebody’s child, a student, a kid. Even monsters have to come from somewhere.
My Friend Dahmer is set during Jeffrey Dahmer’s Junior and Senior year of high school in Bath, Ohio in the late ‘70s. Back when Dahmer was a lonely kid with poor social skills, barely any friends, and a difficult home life. 21-year-old Ross Lynch of the pop band R5 and Disney Series Austin & Ally plays Dahmer, needless to say, it’s a departure. I remember when I worked at Barnes & Noble we had a signing for one of the members of R5, Ryder Lynch (Ross’ older sister), and seeing huge mobs of tweens flood the store to buy her magazine. I wonder how many tweens bought a ticket to see Ross Lynch dissolve a dead cat with acid in My Friend Dahmer?
Lynch does an excellent job capturing the awkward yet sinister presence of Dahmer. Perhaps the most challenging part of the role is reenacting Dahmer’s spastic outbursts at school. One of the bizarre details of Dahmer’s youth was that he would constantly pretend to have cerebral palsy, twitching and howling gibberish in the halls of his high school or the local mall. It’s this bizarre routine that introduces Dahmer to his friend and fellow classmate John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff of Nickelodeon fame) an aspiring cartoonist.
Derf and his friends find Dahmer so entertaining they start a fan club, drawing cartoons with Dahmer and egging him on to pull pranks, most of which involve his spastic outbursts. It’s sad because it feels very believable, the kid that acts out in bizarre ways to keep the demons at bay. Or maybe it’s just kids doing dumb shit because they are kids. Who knows? The point is it’s believable. It puts you in a time and place and in a person’s shoes. Even if they are the last shoes you would ever want to step foot in.
There’s not one trigger in particular that sets Dahmer down a doomed path as much as there is a series of bad habits that distort his sense of self over time. Aside from his interest in dissecting road kill, Dahmer develops an unhealthy obsession with a jogger/doctor played by Vincent Kartheiser. Dahmer has dreams of seducing and killing the jogger and struggles with understanding his homosexuality. His acts, as horrible as they are, are outlets. A way to release the aggression and pain burning from within. Yet no one knows how to reach out to him, which gives the film an ever-present mood of dread.
The film isn’t for the faint of heart but I would recommend it for perspective. I would also highly recommend the graphic novel upon which it was based. The author being Derf Backderf (the same character from the film) who was a real person who knew Dahmer and went on to write the acclaimed graphic novel upon which this film is based. This movie isn’t an opportunity to forgive Dahmer, rather it’s a chance to sympathize with the alienation of all teens.
This movie isn’t an opportunity to forgive Dahmer, rather it’s a chance to sympathize with the alienation of all teens. There’s nothing harder than deciding who you want to be. It’s a shame Dahmer made the choices that he did.