My Friend Dahmer
directed by Marc Meyers
starring Ross Lynch, Anne Heche
Ibid Filmworks / Aperture Entertainment
It is an odd little independent film that attempts to garner sympathy for one of the most famous monsters in modern America. And yet, after several biopics that sensationalize the already sensational murders committed by Jeffrey Dahmer, My Friend Dahmer takes us back to the high school days, before any of that happened, to try to get a glimpse of who he used to be and what happened to turn him into who he became.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by James “Derf” Backderf, the film chronicles the socially awkward Dahmer finding friends, of a sort. After he gains attention by “spazzing out” in school, Derf and a few other boys begin to use him as a mascot, using him to get attention and for cheap laughs, but never really connecting with him. Couple this with a troubled home life – a mother (Anne Heche) recently released from a mental hospital and a father (Dallas Robert) struggling at work and at home – and you get a crucible where the monster is formed. He is fascinated with dead animals, dissolving their corpses in acid in his backyard. He is confused by his sexuality, abandoning an earlier friend who is constantly bullied for seeming gay. He deals with these issues at first by turning to alcohol and drugs. Near the end of the school year, some of his “friends” begin to wonder if they are using him, if the jokes at his expense are too much, and if he might be in trouble. But there is only so much a teenage boy can do when his friend doesn’t open up, especially in the late 70’s.
Technically, this is a very well made film. Period pieces aren’t easy, especially on a small budget, but I never doubted that we were in the Midwest in 1977-78. Heche and Roberts give inspired turns as the troubled parents. Marc Meyers, who adapted the script and directed, gets excellent performances from everyone, especially the other teens inhabiting Dahmer’s orbit at the high school. But the star making performance comes from Ross Lynch, a former Disney Channel actor, taking a dark turn as the disturbed Dahmer.
My Friend Dahmer is a curious movie. It plays out as a horror movie, without any killing. You have a sense of dread and impending doom, up until Jeffrey meets a hitchhiker shortly after graduation but right before the credits roll. You know how his story ends, and now you have an idea of how it started. And that makes you wonder about the weird kid in your high school, or your kid’s school. And it makes you wonder if anything could have changed what he became.