Ross Lynch makes a promising first step into more mature cinematic territory with an astute portrayal of what makes a murderer.
Before Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen men in the American Midwest; before he was immortalised in modern pop culture as “rap’s favourite serial killer”, he was a teenager going through the ups and downs of high school, just like me or you. It’s weird to think about, much like it would be weird to imagine John Wayne Gacy Jr. as a schoolboy – but it is that small, essential bit of humanity we all have in common that serves as the cornerstone of My Friend Dahmer. In fact, the title itself is testament to what the film aims to do – to paint the portrait of a troubled life and a young man in perilous mental decline – and succeeds, both at unsettling its audience and handling its infamous titular character sensitively.
Doing away with grisly murders, necrophilia, and cannibalism, My Friend Dahmer instead focuses on Jeffrey Dahmer’s time in high school, and his fateful friendship with the cartoonist Derf (whose novel about his school years serves as the basis for this movie). Dahmer is mostly friendless in school, with a growing proclivity for stealing his parents’ alcohol and getting drunk before class. But behind his sullen, hulking façade is a boy yearning to fit in. He soon gets his chance after a spontaneous and wildly politically incorrect – but hey! It’s the 80s! – imitation of an epileptic fit in the school corridors attracts the attention of three boys working on the school magazine. Derf, Neil, and Mike are lovable losers who enjoy a good prank, and are convinced that the unpredictable Dahmer is their left-field wild card to trickster glory. But as his friendships fade away and his family goes from being quietly dysfunctional to melodramatically imploding, Dahmer finds himself increasingly drawn to taking solace in his fascination for blood, gore; and disturbingly enough, other men.
serial killers may be formed by their lives, but only truly made by their deeds
My Friend Dahmer does well to subvert one’s usual expectations from a movie about serial killers. Instead of vilifying Dahmer as a “lost cause” from the start and relying on the infamous name to make the character, the film develops his character much like any other high school drama would treat their main character. Sure, Dahmer may initially be branded a social outcast (as he was), but in no way does he stick out like a sore thumb; a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. It is this non-ubiquitousness that humanises Dahmer in his early years and reminds audiences that serial killers may be formed by their lives, but only truly made by their deeds. The film does not attempt to forgive Dahmer’s sins; it is simply an explanation for them, and an unsettlingly familiar one at that. His struggles with high school life and the fragmentation of his family are typical suburban problems very much relatable to many other youths across the world, let alone the United States. The only distinct difference between Dahmer and the audience is the extremely psychotic manner in which he deals with his problems and desires. Otherwise, he may as well have been any one of the viewers sitting in the cinema. In an age where all members of certain demographics are instantly shunned for the crimes of a minority of extremists, My Friend Dahmer’s message is therefore particularly relevant – the line between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is hardly a thin line, but an electric fence.
Ross Lynch as the film’s titular character is also simply stellar – his role as Dahmer was so nuanced and subtly unsettling that I left the cinema wondering if there was indeed some deep-buried psychopathic streak within him. Lynch is best known for his roles on Disney Channel movies and for his stint as a member of the boyband R5, but is completely unrecognisable as any form of heartthrob in My Friend Dahmer – so effective is his transformation; so chilling his performance. Every bit of emotion that Dahmer feels makes itself apparent in Lynch’s demeanour without being overly obtrusive – a small smile here, a change in posture there – in a spectacularly chilling fashion. Derf himself had reportedly been enthusiastic about casting Lynch outside his usual genre, and what may have initially seemed like a tough gamble proved a brilliant gambit indeed. Perhaps this is also testament to Lynch’s clearly burgeoning acting skills. If his transition from Teen Beach Movie to My Friend Dahmer was so smooth, he should then certainly be a name to watch out for in the future, long after his time on the Disney Channel rota ends.
a film relevant not only to the Midwest’s dark past, but our mindset at present, too
My Friend Dahmer also greatly benefits from the rest of its cast’s ability. Anne Heche as Dahmer’s mother gives a brilliantly unhinged performance, spiralling into steady mental and parental decline in melodramatic hissy fits that mirror Dahmer’s own psychosis, albeit in a subdued, suburban manner. In the same way, Dallas Roberts’s limp, flaccid persona as Dahmer’s father serves as the perfect foil to Heche’s unpredictable, wild-eyed performance, and together they create the perfectly dysfunctional parental duo that are very easy indeed to loathe. Alex Wolff and Tommy Jones as Derf and Neil are also good casting choices – Wolff’s legacy from The Naked Brothers Band as a lovable misfit means he fits in perfectly as the jokey cartoonist, and Jones’s onscreen evolution from willing prankster to reluctant tag-along is both believable and empathetic.
Marc Meyers has at last hit his stride with My Friend Dahmer, and brings with him a whole host of talent; Lynch in particular. With the humour and relatable poignancy of teen coming-of-age movies such as Napoleon Dynamite, but bringing with it a dose of insidious disquiet that does not look at its source material through rose-tinted glasses. My Friend Dahmer holds a promising future for both Meyers and Lynch, and is certainly a film relevant not only to the Midwest’s dark past, but our mindset at present, too.
‘My Friend Dahmer’ is screening at London Film Festival 2017, taking place from 4th to 15th October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Altitude Film Distribution