In 1978, Ohio high school student Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch, Disney Channel's 'Austin & Ally') was a very troubled young man. His father Lionel (Dallas Roberts, "Dallas Buyers Club") was in the process of divorcing his mentally unstable mother Joyce (Anne Heche). He was socially awkward, spending time alone seeking roadkill which he'd autopsy or dissolve in acid in a backyard shed. But an aspiring cartoonist at school, John 'Derf' Backderf (Alex Wolff, "Patriots Day") admired the oddball's behavior, forming a fan club of three who would encourage his public antics and drawing the teenager in portraits which would become the basis of his future graphic novel, "My Friend Dahmer."
Writer/director Marc Meyers, adapting John 'Derf' Backderf's graphic novel, ends his film just as Dahmer takes his first real step towards becoming an infamous serial killer, but he doesn't try to explain what made him that way. What he does do is help us understand Dahmer's miserable loneliness and how most around him recognized something wrong yet failed to dig deeper, often creeped out by Dahmer's weird ways. Lynch, leaving Disney in the dust, brings Dahmer-before-infamy into sharp focus, a young man whose isolation and subsequent rage roil with perversely disturbing impulses. He stands out in a crowd with unnatural physical comportment, arms always hanging stiffly at his sides.
Meyers initial introduction to the Dahmer family is a bit shaky, a helmet-wigged Heche so loopy she seems to be acting in a different movie entirely. Yet as the film progresses, we come to understand just how emotionally off kilter she is. Dad's clearly worried about his son, shutting down his chemical shed and giving him weights, but Roberts' portrayal also informs us Lionel isn't emotionally open enough to really communicate with his son. It's quite shocking to watch these two adults literally abandon Jeffrey, Joyce taking off with his younger brother, Lionel moving in with a girlfriend. By the end of the film, Jeffrey's living alone in an empty house.
At school, John's impressed by a bit of Dahmer performance art, the teen faking a fit in a school hallway. The Dahmer fan club dubs this 'spazzing,' enjoying the shocked reactions of passersby. Prepping their yearbook, they decide it will be amusing to place Jeffrey in photographs of school clubs, none of which he belongs to. At first this all seems like harmless fun, but it becomes increasingly clear that Dahmer's being used. After John raises cash for a Dahmer mall performance, fan club member Neil (Tommy Nelson, "Moonrise Kingdom") apologizes. Their self-mocking jokes about their odds in getting prom dates are upended when Jeffrey walks in with Bridget (Sydney Meyer), an underclasswoman he'd appealed to citing the rise in her social standing (earlier we'd seen the young man's persuasiveness in action talking his way into Vice President Mondale's office during a D.C. school trip).
Meyers punctuates his narrative with the red flags that resulted in avoidance rather than responsibility. Having caught a fish, Dahmer shreds it with a knife. He's obsessed with the jogger who runs by his house. Learning his identity, Dahmer makes an appointment with Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser, AMC's 'Mad Men'), unsettling the man with his sexual response to a physical examination. He asks a black classmate if his insides look the same as his. He starts drinking excessively, his friends noting the odor as he takes his seat in class.
Anyone who has read extensively about Dahmer may note the incredible accuracy of Dahmer's early environment. But before congratulating location scouts know that Meyers filmed in the actual places events took place, including Dahmer's childhood home. It is there that John last sees his friend, having given him a lift after finding him by the side of the road. Dahmer practically begs him to join him for a beer, but John, spooked by the emptiness he finds inside, beats a hasty retreat, one which is hinted saves his life.
The most remarkable thing about Meyers' film is its compassion. We may never understand Dahmer's actions, yet we can sympathize with what he endured early on, conditions favorable to the creation of a monster.
Robin gives "My Friend Dahmer" a B-.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.