Released: 1st June 2018
Director: Marc Meyer
Cast: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Jeffrey Dahmer was one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Convicted in 1991 ofmurdering 17 young men, he was killed in prison in 1994 at the age of 34. As a society we seem to have a macabre fascination with those who commit such heinous crimes, presumably in a bid to try and find some trigger, insanity or reason behind their actions. So how do you craft a successful film about such horrific real life incidents? In My Friend Dahmer, director Marc Meyer adapts the graphic novel created by John ‘Derf’ Backderf (one of Dahmer’s high school peers) so we meet Jeffrey as a high school senior, loner, road kill enthusiast and extremely disturbed young man.
Set in the 1970’s, the period look of the film is seamless, translating you to the era the minute the credits roll. Jeffrey (or Jeff as he is known) is an outsider contained within a dysfunctional family. We learn very early on in the film that Dahmer is interested in bones and ‘what things look like on the inside’. His hobby involves dissolving roadkill in acid. It’s fair to say this kid is already weird and Meyers film goes on to chart his growing disturbance.
With no friends to speak of, Jeff finds that goofing around in school and pretending to have fits, wins him some laughs and in particular the attention of fellow students Derf, Neil and Mike. Once they invite him in to their circle, they plot pranks and disruption, with Jeff at the centre of the lunacy. Is it friendship exactly, or do the boys use him for their own amusement? This is something Neil questions later in the film, but it’s fair to say there is no real malice intended and it all seems akin to normal teenage behaviour. Whilst Jeff goes along for the ride, he never fully connects on any real personal level with his new friends. When his parents’ marriage starts to crumble and he starts drinking, they back away and he is left fighting his own inner demons.
Disney star Ross Lynch plays Dahmer with an introverted intensity. A permanent forward slouch of the shoulders, give him a hooded sullen look. This is about as far removed from the Mouse House as Lynch can get. Similarly, ex Nickelodeon star Alex Wolff gives an incredibly convincing performance as Derf, the cartoon drawing friend who goes on to create the graphic novel mentioned earlier.
Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts play Jeff’s parents, capturing the essence of people so deeply embroiled in their own issues that they can’t see what is happening under their very noses. With Heche’s manic, mentally unstable mother firing brilliantly off Roberts, worn beleaguered father, it’s easy to lose yourself within their imploding relationship.
One of the main challenges with the film is Jeff’s lack of interaction with other characters. He continually walks away from social situations at the drop of a hat and when he does engage, it is with a heightened bizarre act. Whilst this may be true, and insightful to a point, it can feel frustratingly unsatisfying and a little monotonous. There are only so many times you want to see a kid kicking out his frustration in the woods. However, when Meyer uses light and colour to highlight some of Jeff’s solitary scenes and plays with the concept of reality versus mind (in particular, a moment showing Jeff’s internal desires for a local doctor) the film lifts itself to a more disturbing level. It’s a shame that there’s not more of a balance between these internalized moments and the high school scenes.
Without apportioning any blame, the film succeeds in making you wonder why none of the adults surrounding Dahmer stepped forward to ask questions. But in depicting the boy before his crimes, the film suffers to some extent by a lack of action. It isn’t until things are drawing to a close (when Dahmer starts to give in to his damaged desires) that the film really hits its stride. It’s a shame, but Meyer definitely saves the best scenes until last and leaves you wanting more.