Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Images, Language, Teen Drug Use, Drinking and Sexual Content, and for brief Nudity
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Written by: Marc Meyers
(based on the graphic novel MY FRIEND DAHMER by John Backderf)
Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Vincent Kartheiser, Ann Heche, Dallas Roberts, Harrison Holzer, Tommy Nelson & Miles Robbins
MY FRIEND DAHMER is a serial killer film like no other in that we don’t actually see any murders occur on-screen and the plot doesn’t focus on the crimes of its subject. Instead of doing either of those things, MY FRIEND DAHMER is based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Backderf (a.k.a. Derf Backderf). John went to high school with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and could be considered one of Jeff’s close “friends.” MY FRIEND DAHMER takes the approach of focusing on a pre-murderous Dahmer in his adolescent years, painting a chilling picture of a damaged individual and a psychopath in the making. The result is equally fascinating, chilling, and compelling.
Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a weird outcast at his high school. This might be because his hobbies include dissolving dead animals in acid at an isolated shed and creepily watching a passing jogger on his everyday runs. In an effort to get Jeff to come out of his shell, concerned father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) destroys Jeff’s dead animal collection and attempts to push his strange son into making new friends. These friends come in the form of amateur artist/bully Derf (Alex Wolff) and his two young cronies. At first, Dahmer seems to be fitting right in…but this future serial killer’s dark thoughts and intentions linger just beneath the surface.
MY FRIEND DAHMER serves as a fascinating prequel to one of the most sickening psychos to ever walk the streets of America. One concern that some people may have is that this film might set out to humanize Dahmer and make him into a somewhat sympathetic creature, despite the fact that he viciously murdered and cannibalized 17 young men. Thankfully, MY FRIEND DAHMER doesn’t try to make you feel bad for its titular monster and it doesn’t celebrate its subject’s life either. Instead, this serves as a creepy character study that gives us a glimpse into this psycho before he started preying upon unsuspecting victims. Dahmer’s verbal clues and disturbing hobbies (like killing animals to relieve stress) contain the films most chilling moments, while there are also loads of dramatic scenes to be found that were ripped right out of this psycho’s strange teenage years. By showing us that Dahmer was indeed an adolescent high school weirdo, the film makes his future crimes seem much more disturbing and horrific in retrospect.
In the titular role, Ross Lynch (who is definitely breaking away from his Disney Channel roots) delivers a fantastic performance. Lynch’s portrayal of Dahmer isn’t necessarily sympathetic in that we feel bad for him, instead it paints the face of a damaged individual who has dark cravings that he will ultimately succumb to. Lynch mainly plays Dahmer as the reserved high school weirdo and occasional class clown. By virtue of the fact that most of us have likely met someone like this teenage version of Dahmer, it makes the entire experience extremely unnerving and yet equally fascinating at the same time.
Even though Ross Lynch pretty much steals the show in the lead role, the supporting cast is remarkably strong. Besides Lynch, the film’s two best performances easily belong to Dallas Roberts as Dahmer’s concerned father and Anne Heche as Dahmer’s mentally ill mother. The verbally abusive bashings between these two get particularly nasty at points. I really sympathized for Dahmer’s father, while his mother just didn’t seem in her right mind and caused her entire family to suffer as a result. Again though, MY FRIEND DAHMER doesn’t attempt to make any sort of excuse for Dahmer’s crimes, but rather to show that he had a rough upbringing (like many other folks who don’t go on to become serial killers and actually make something of themselves).
MY FRIEND DAHMER sort of drops the ball in Alex Wolff’s role of Derf, Dahmer’s “friend.” The emerging relationship between Dahmer and Derf is interesting and the “Dahmer Fan Club” participate in many school pranks to make their high school experience memorable. However, there are brief stretches where Derf seems to almost become the main focus in a film that’s supposed to be about Jeffrey Dahmer’s strange (and foreboding, as most adults seem to ignore early warning signs) teenage life. The final scene between Wolff’s Derf and Lynch’s Dahmer makes the slower moments completely worth sitting through, because those final minutes are haunting beyond words.
MY FRIEND DAHMER is one of the most unusual, fascinating serial killer flicks that I’ve ever sat through. It documents the early years of a real-life psycho, showing his pre-murder progression into madness. In a way, MY FRIEND DAHMER does somewhat humanize Jeffrey Dahmer as a teenage kid…but not to the effect of feeling sorry for him. Instead, it’s the quite the opposite. MY FRIEND DAHMER reminds us that some of the kids we went to high school with could very well be murderous criminals or worse. That effect is chilling and this entire film is haunting. MY FRIEND DAHMER is the scariest serial killer flick that doesn’t contain a single dead human body and that in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. If you are a true crime aficionado, then MY FRIEND DAHMER is a must-see!