We meet awkward teenager Jeffrey Dahmer in 1970’s Milwaukee, and as we view his troubled life through the eyes of his peers in high-school, we learn that there is much more to him than one would expect.
My Friend Dahmer is based on a graphic novel of the same name, which was written by one of Dahmer’s high school friends, John Backderf (who is portrayed in the film by Alex Wolff). It isn’t a traditional biopic, nor is it a typical serial killer origin story. The other atypical aspect of the film is how little killing it actually includes. What it focuses on instead, are the lesser known, but equally as troubling aspects of Jeffrey’s youth. His alcoholism, his desperation for attention and validation, and his penchant for vivisection are all explored, and often represented from the perspective of his peers.
What is intriguing about Jeffrey’s formative years is how close to normal much of his life is, when examined at a surface level. He’s awkward, his parents are having marital troubles, and he wants to be noticed and acknowledged; stock standard for many teenagers. What isn’t standard are the darker undertones to all of these elements; his mother’s mental illness, his father not understanding the seriousness of his obsession with bones and animal autopsies, and the lengths he would eventually go to so that he could feel noticed, and ‘loved’.
The slow burn of Dahmer is at times as frustrating for the audience as it is for its protagonist. Director Marc Meyers riles the audience up, getting us to a point where, much like Jeffrey, we just want to see a murder. The film is a series of crescendos; the strings tighten and tighten until the audience is ready to watch a monster do his work. But before they snap, the reality of his actions sets in, and the tension falls away momentarily, only to be built up again and again.
Jeffrey himself (played by Ross Lynch) is quite unsettling, and while this is obviously partially due to the performance and the physicality, it’s also because of those around him. The reactions of his peers to his odd behaviour vary greatly. While it’s all fun and games to begin with, the humour begins to wear off, and the sad, troubling reality of Jeffrey’s actions become ever more apparent. For many people, teenagers especially, there is no real-world gauge for normalcy. Instead what is normal is decided by those around them. This dynamic allows for Jeffrey’s behaviour to be entertaining and unsettling, and which of the two it is, is entirely dependent on how others feel about it.
While the film is tense and at times funnier than one might expect, it is definitely lacking in murder and mayhem. Instead, it’s a quiet character study, and is far more concerned with the burgeoning mania that would eventually make Jeffrey Dahmer one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, one of the film’s most notable attributes is also one of its weaknesses. The cold and distant nature of Jeffrey himself makes it difficult to relate and connect with the story. This is almost outweighed by the godlike omniscience we feel knowing what horror the future would hold for Jeffrey’s victims; but this knowledge isn’t quite enough to fill the void left by a relatable or personable character. The coldness, though, is necessary, as it helps communicate the pure isolation of Jeffrey’s existence. And the subtle, understated nature of My Friend Dahmer allows for subdued moments that are just quiet enough for our minds to wander from what we are seeing on screen, to what we know Jeffrey would go on to do.
My Friend Dahmer was filmed in Jeffery Dahmer’s actual childhood home in Bath, Ohio. Revere High school he went to was going to be used for the movie as well, but the school rejected the offer.
My Friend Dahmer screened at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival – check out our reviews from MIFF here.