There’s nature, there’s nurture, and then there’s inside the mind of a teenage boy. My Friend Dahmer takes us back to the 1970’s, before notorious real-life serial killer and cannibal Jeffery Dahmer had taken his first victim. The film is based off the non-fiction graphic novel of the same name by John Backderf, who recounts what it was like in High School with Jeffery Dahmer as a friend.
My Friend Dahmer paints a grey picture of a story normally seen starkly in black and white. In headlines, Dahmer has a host of vile designations; a Monster, The Milwaukee Cannibal, a Necrophiliac, a Psychopath.. – all of them earned. But, what about the person he was before he committed those vile and heinous murders? Are the people who take the lives of others always sadistic monsters – or are they shaped, molded by a cruel and neglectful upbringing?
Who is Jeffery Dahmer when you strip away his violent, abhorrent adult self?
You get a boy. A strange and lonely- boy.
Jeff (Ross Lynch), is not quite your average teenage boy. Sure, he plays trumpet in the band, goes to tennis lessons, and has a general disdain for the high school experience – but he also has odd quirks. Like his after school passion; finding roadkill and taking their flattened corpses to a small shed in the woods to dissolve in jars of acid.
For much of high school, Jeff is a silent loner (who likely has animal bones in his pockets). We never get inside his head or understand what he is thinking. It isn’t until the group of class clowns, including budding cartoonist Backderf (Alex Wolff), take the strangely goofy Dahmer under their wing that we get a glimpse of Dahmer even yearning for some sort of normalcy.
The group creates a small cult-like following surrounding Dahmer, and we aren’t quite sure if Jeff is always in on the joke. In a bid for attention or to cause a ‘freak out’, Jeff creates scene after scene; invoking spazzed-out fits that usually end in him convulsing on the ground, contorting as if from some sort of seizure. His chums eat each fit up, laughing in the sidelines. They designate them “pulling a Dahmer“.
Even a flourishing social life can’t rescue Jeff from himself. We as the audience so desperately want to get inside his head, but are forced to watch from afar as he stoically reacts to a mother who is an erupting volcano of erratic, self destructive behavior, a father who’d rather just not talk about it, and a younger brother who receives all the sympathy. Though Dahmer doesn’t give an inch, we know he’s absorbing these experiences like a sponge.
His strange interests continue, even after an attempt from his father to squash them. No more roadkill, son. But Jeff can’t help himself. The compulsions lead him to strange, and unsettling encounters that should be otherwise harmless. Even without moving a single finger out of place, we sit at the edge of our seats. We don’t know what he might do, because we don’t know him at all.
My Friend Dahmer takes the audience to a dark place with beauty and confidence. How do you sympathize with a serial killer, even if the evil is something that may just have been inside him all along? We eagerly disappear inside a perfectly decorated 1970’s living room in order to catch a glimpse of this slow moving train as it inevitably derails. Ross Lynch’s embodiment of Dahmers’ unsettling silence and slumping sense-of self is hypnotizing. You won’t look away, even if you want to.
My Friend Dahmer recently screened at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, which runs until October 19th. My Friend Dahmer is written and directed by Marc Meyers. The film will hit theatres on November 3rd.