The 2017 film, My Friend Dahmer, opens in a suburban high school in the 1970s. It’s a school like any other, with the usual collection of jocks, nerds, geeks, and outcasts. Jeff (Ross Lynch) is the token weird kid. Every school has one. He’s obviously intelligent but there’s something off about him. He shuffles around the school with his eyes down. When he speaks, he rarely shows any emotion, leaving you to wonder if he’s just shy or if he’s lost in a world of his own. There are rumors, of course, about all the strange things that Jeff has done. Some people say that they’ve seen him collecting dead animals. Jeff has told people that he has a shack where he uses acid to dissolve carcasses. Jeff frequently comes to school drunk, reeking of alcohol. And then there’s his parents! His father (Dallas Roberts) tries to be strict but usually just comes across as befuddled. Meanwhile, his mother (Anne Heche) alternates between doting on her oldest son and making paranoid accusations.
His father demands that Jeffrey make some friends. That’s why Jeff ends up in such unlikely places as both the school band and the school’s tennis team. Still feeling out-of-place, Jeff starts to act out in school. Walking through the hallway, he’ll suddenly start shouting and twitching. Jeff becomes known as the kid who will do anything. One his classmates, an artist named John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff), even starts to draw pictures based on Jeffrey’s antics. Derf and his friends describe themselves as being Jeffrey’s fan club. For the rest of the school year, they encourage Jeff to act stranger and stranger. It would be incorrect to say that Derf and Jeff are really friends. In fact, towards the end of the school year, Derf starts to realize that he’s basically been exploiting Jeff for his own amusement. And yet, Derf and his friends provide perhaps the closest thing to “normal” human interaction that Jeff will ever experience.
As you’ve probably already guessed from the film’s title, Jeff is Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous Milwaukee-based serial killer and cannibal who is estimated to have killed 17 young men before he was arrested in 1991. (In 1994, Dahmer was murdered in prison by an inmate who claimed to have been motivated by Dahmer’s lack of remorse.) Dahmer committed his first murder when he was 18, a fact alluded to towards the end of the film when we see Dahmer picking up a hitchhiker. (Disturbingly, the only time in the film in which Dahmer smiles and sounds like a “normal” person is when he’s trying to convince that hitchhiker to get in his car.) With the exception of that one scene, My Friend Dahmer deals with the year before Dahmer started his killing spree, when Dahmer was just the token weird kid.
The fact that we know what Jeffrey Dahmer is ultimately going to becomes add an ominous subtext to every scene in the film. Throughout, there are signs that something is wrong with Dahmer and yet neither his classmates nor his teachers ever seem to take those signs seriously. When Dahmer brutally cuts open a fish because he wants to see what’s inside of it, his friends are disgusted but they assume that’s just Dahmer being weird again. When he shows up drunk for class and his grades start to go downhill, his teachers just ignore him. No matter what he says (and he does say some truly disturbing things), everyone just shrugs it off. Their attitude is that Jeff’s the weird kid so, of course, he’s going to say weird things.
To its credit, My Friend Dahmer resists the temptation to sensationalize or make excuses for the monster that Jeffrey Dahmer became. Ross Lynch plays Dahmer as a hulking, inarticulate time bomb. It’s not so much that Dahmer can’t control his dark thoughts as he really has no desire to do so. The film contrasts Dahmer’s darkness with the light-hearted and, quite frankly, dorky guys who briefly became his clique. (Again, despite the film’s title, it would probably be a bit of a stretch to say that Dahmer had any real friends.) One practical joke, in which Derf sneaks Dahmer into every club’s yearbook picture, is so likable in its dorkiness that you almost forget that Derf’s scheme centers around a guy who will grow up to murder 17 people. In the end, both Dahmer’s crimes and his fate feels as inevitable as the fact that Derf will ultimately write and draw graphic novel about their relationship.
By any stretch of the imagination, it’s not a happy or pleasant film. I watched the film last night and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. And yet, it’s an effective film, one that left me wondering what happened to some of the “weird kids” that I went to school with. Do we ever really know what’s going on inside someone’s head? Ross Lynch turns Dahmer into a disturbingly familiar monster while Alex Wolff is sympathetic in the role of Derf. Anne Heche goes a bit overboard as Dahmer’s unstable mother but Dallas Roberts has a few good scenes as the father who can only watch helplessly as his son grows more and more disturbed. The film is a disturbing trip into the heart of darkness, one that will haunt you after it ends.