My Friend Dahmer, 2018.
A young Jeffrey Dahmer struggles to belong in high school.
Despite being about one of the most depraved serial killer ever to have lived, My Friend Dahmer plays out with striking normality. That is not to say Dahmer is portrayed as a normal person, just that his story is not nearly as exceptional as you might expect. Whether this more grounded portrayal is to the film’s benefit or its detriment depends on what kind of movie you’re hoping to see.
The story follows a young Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) through his final year of high school. We are shown how he evolves from a total loner to the idol of “The Dahmer Fan club” – a group of three boys who admire Dahmer for his quirkiness and his sporadic behaviour. They bond over his ‘spazzing,’ which sees him fake fits and mimic those affected by palsy. We are also shown the disintegration of his home life – his mentally ill, drug addled mother (Anne Heche) and her failing relationship with his weak-willed father (Dallas Roberts).
Outside of these two story arcs, the rest of Dahmer’s life is shown in drabs. There are a few scenes that show his obsession with mutilated animals and his homosexuality is made apparent, yet not dwelled on. Scenes showing his violent nature are reserved till the latter half of the movie, and his cannibalism is, to my recollection, never touched upon. It is not until the very end of the film, just before the credits roll, that we are reminded that the boy we just watched survive his way through high school murdered and raped seventeen men.
This brings me back to my point about normality. Considering the man Dahmer turned out to be, his life before the murders seems rather unspectacular. Sure, he was bullied at school, but never dreadfully. Although his family life was shaky, it is clear that both his parents loved him very much, and neither were actively abusive (though his mother was certainly neglectful). And despite his penchant for taking apart dead animals, the film makes it clear that he was not the most violent member of his school. In fact, most of his antics, though disruptive, could not really be classed as destructive.
This juxtaposition between young Dahmer and the real Dahmer that everyone know about gives the film a unique atmosphere. Though the audience is never made to sympathise with Dahmer, he’s not exactly portrayed as the epitome of evil that he really was. And perhaps he wasn’t, at least in his younger years. The psychology of psychopaths is still a big unknown, and this film leaves you with real sense of not knowing. It makes sense that Dahmer became who he was, but what doesn’t make sense is why more people don’t become like Dahmer, especially considering the events in his life that led to his spree of murders.
This sense of unknown is My Friend Dahmer’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Though it accurately represents the mystery of what makes someone a psychopath, it doesn’t give the audience anything original. Dahmer likes playing with dead animals. Jeez, I’ve never heard that one before.
For this reason, my highlight of the film was not the portrayal of Dahmer (though I must say, Ross Lynch does do a stellar job). Instead, it was the portrayal of his best friend Derf (Alex Wolff).
For those who don’t know, My Friend Dahmer is based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by one John “Derf” Backderf. Derf was Dahmer’s best friend in high school, and the apparent leader of The Dahmer Fan club. Despite being Dahmer’s friend, Derf routinely exploits Dahmer for his own amusement, as do the rest of the fan club. He’s never outright malicious, but his actions are far from friendly.
Wolff’s portrayal of Derf is downright excellent. He’s charismatic, fun, and oddly likeable despite his bullying of Dahmer. He also provides the film with its one original perspective: the evolution of serial killer’s closest friend. As the film progresses, we see Derf come to the realisation that there is something wrong with Dahmer. Wolff’s capability as an actor allows the audience to pinpoint the exact moment the full realisation hits him, and he doesn’t even say a word.
Unfortunately, strong performances and glimpses of originality are not enough to save My Friend Dahmer from treading the same ground as a thousand coming-of-age or making-a-serial-killer movies that came before it. It’s still and enjoyable film, and I’d recommend giving it a watch, but don’t expect to leave the cinema with a new perspective.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor