School days before the serial killing started
Several films have tried to grapple with the horror that was serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. ( A young Jeremy Renner played him in 2002’s Dahmer.) My Friend Dahmer is the first to focus entirely on the time before his first murder, which took place three weeks after he graduated from high school in 1978. The result is a chilling yet oddly restrained portrait of depravity.
The source material is the 2002 graphic novel by John “Derf ” Backderf ( Alex Wolff in the film), an American cartoonist who befriended Dahmer in high school and was, to his everlasting chagrin, president of the Dahmer Fan Club. These were a group of kids who egged on the misfit student’s bizarre antics, which included fake epileptic seizures in public places.
On his own, young Dahmer had a grisly, growing interest in animal anatomy, collecting dead creatures and bleaching their bones in acid. ( In one of the few l augh- out- l oud moments in the movie, he tells the school’s pot dealer that he’s into roadkill, “but I’m trying to quit.”) He does take to drinking, seemingly at random but quickly to excess, and further alienating him from his “fans.”
Stories about future evildoers must tread cautiously to avoid suggesting they know exactly what caused a seemingly normal person to go off the deep end. My Friend Dahmer avoids one pat diagnosis by offering many — the teenager had a distant father, an emotionally unstable mother and few real friends. At one point he meets the guns- and- knives-obsessed Figg, described as a “total psycho” by the other kids. Yet even here we confront the irony that it’s Dahmer who is the real danger — just not yet.
My Friend Dahmer is as watchable as it is thanks to an understated central performance by Ross Lynch. With his droopy eyes behind oversized glasses and his stooped posture, he captures the sense of the shy, uncertain youth. Yet for all his shenanigans and “spazzing out” for attention, there’s an intelligence there as well. The scene where Dahmer engineers a meeting with vice-president Walter Mondale during a class trip to Washington really happened.
Director Marc Meyers brings a steady gaze and some sterling production values to the picture. It truly looks like 1978 Ohio, where Dahmer went to school.
And by treating its subject seriously, we’re invited to do the same. There’s a scene late in the movie in which an increasingly creepy Dahmer invites a girl to the prom. When they show up, the photographer urges them to move closer together: “She’s not going to bite!” The back-of-the-class voice in the back of my head wanted to answer: “But he might!” Then I remembered the real back-of- the- class types who knew him. The laugh died in my throat. ½
Ross Lynch, centre, stars as the young Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer.