MY FRIEND DAHMER
Director: Marc Meyers
Cast: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Harrison Holzer, Tommy Nelson, Miles Robbins, Vincent Kartheiser
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing images, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 11/3/17 (limited); 11/10/17 (wider); 11/17/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 16, 2017
We have to remember that Jeffrey Dahmer, as monstrous as he turned out to be, was a fairly ordinary kid and teenager at one point. Our monsters don't just come out of nowhere. They're born of circumstances, and there are signs. Whether Dahmer would have turned out the same way if his youth had been different is a philosophical question, which means it's pretty useless in terms of real life. It's one that My Friend Dahmer seems to asking, though, even as it depicts how Dahmer became the killer he was with frightening clarity.
The film is based on a graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who was Dahmer's friend during their high school years in the 1970s. It portrays Dahmer, known simply as Jeff in those days, as an isolated teenager who is calling out for attention. He doesn't get it at home, where his parents are constantly arguing. He doesn't get it at school, where everyone looks at the quiet, lanky kid with the oversized, thin-rimmed glasses as a freak.
They look at him that way even without knowing what he does in the shed in his backyard. There are rumors, we have to assume, since Jeff (Ross Lynch) doesn't necessarily hide his affinity for picking up roadkill. When some passing kids ask what he has in a garbage bag, he's more than fine with showing them. He explains that he keeps the carcasses of animals in jars filled with acid, so that he can keep their bones after the flesh has dissolved. The kids don't believe him, so he shows them his workshop. They don't believe that the jars are the real deal, so he smashes one on the ground. They believe him, and then they run away from the scene.
There is something wrong with Jeff, and it goes beyond his reclusiveness, his family life, and his lack of friends at school. One wonders how much of Backderf's illustrated memoir was an attempt to figure out what he himself could have done, if anything, to prevent Dahmer from becoming the man who would confess to murdering 17 people and be convicted of 16 counts of murder in Wisconsin and Ohio, where he spent most of his youth and killed his first victim. The film, written and directed by Marc Meyers, possesses a bit more distance from its subject. It doesn't see Derf, played here by Alex Wolff, as anything more than a teenage kid with his own desire for attention and a feeling of purpose. That Jeff ends up serving as a means for Derf getting that attention and an unlikely muse for his artwork is simply an unfortunate coincidence.
The story mostly follows Jeff, whose behavior becomes more erratic as his final two years of high school unfold. His father Lionel (Dallas Roberts), a chemist by trade (That's how Jeff obtains the acid for his experiments), knows what his son is doing in the shed, but he only sees it as a strange hobby that points to Jeff's curiosity about biology. There's nothing sinister about it in Lionel's eyes, or if there is, he keeps that to himself. Instead, it's simply hindering the kid from making any friends. Lionel has been there. He believes he understands it, hence the father doesn't think much of it.
We learn that Jeff's mother Joyce (Anne Heche) has a history of mental illness. Her recovery may have been too brief, and Joyce's desire to move forward with her life has caused tension between Jeff's parents. If Lionel can't see his son's psychological problems, Joyce certainly cannot.
At school, Jeff only becomes somewhat popular when he decides to act out, mimicking seizures or imitating someone with cerebral palsy. The pranks bring Jeff to the attention of Derf and his friends, who have dubbed his act "Doing a Dahmer." The guys want to end their time in high school as infamous pranksters, and Jeff seems like their ticket to fame. In a way, they treat him like a trained animal, doing stunts on command for their own amusement.
Meanwhile, Jeff's own obsessions begin to grow, most notably in hiding his experiments with dead animals (His father tears down the shed, meaning that Jeff has to move his actions into the wider world), putting the mutilated remains of roadkill on display in the woods for anyone to find, trying to bring himself to kill a living dog, and stalking a local doctor who passes by Jeff's house every other day during the doctor's jog. When his parents separate, Jeff begins drinking to excess and further secluding himself from people.
The film isn't pointing fingers, although it recognizes that, in some way, all of this contributed to Jeff becoming Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer. The film ends just before Jeff kills his first victim, but the progression of the character as a loner to a man who has worked up the nerve and figured out his methods to killing is genuinely chilling.
There's a degree of sadness here, too, which is unexpected. Meyers has no delusions that any one change in Dahmer's past could have prevented what happened, especially since no one in the story seems to understand or even to recognize the psychological underpinnings that contributed to Dahmer's crimes. The film doesn't dismiss the young Jeff as a hopeless cause, either. My Friend Dahmer shows that Jeff might as well be any given teenager—feeling alone, unloved, and overlooked. If that's the case, then anybody could be like him. That's the terrifying part.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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