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Film Review: My Friend Dahmer

13 June 18 words: Natalie Mills

A well-crafted, uncomfortable look into the high school years of future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

Director: Marc Meyers

Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche

Running time: 107 mins

My Friend Dahmer is a difficult watch and I still don’t know entirely how I feel about it. However, I think that’s the point. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 young men and did horrifying things with their bodies. Although you never forget this, the most disturbing thing about Marc Meyers’ film is how it humanises Dahmer. Not yet a murderer, Jeff is still just a messed up kid trying to survive high school. You hate feeling sorry for him.

Based on “Derf” Backderf’s graphic novel – who was a friend of Dahmer at high school – the film strives to be authentic. The uncut hair and politically incorrect humour of the 1970s is spot on, and some scenes were shot in Dahmer’s actual childhood home. It feels eerie and uncomfortable, despite having the look of a quirky indie film at times. Seeing his last year at high school, you try to piece together where it all went so wrong. Dahmer is strange to say the least; played convincingly by a shuffling, awkward Ross Lynch. He doesn’t wave a big sign saying “I’m going to grow up to be a serial killer”, but alarm bells are ringing.

We’re introduced to Dahmer as an outcast – a dead-eyed loner with a morbid fascination with bones and corpses. Inside his hut in the woods, he reveals a dead cat and tells a group of kids “I’m going to dissolve it” like it’s the most natural thing in the word. His parents’ marriage is dissolving too, leaving him a festering breeding ground for issues. His unstable mother says, “We eat our mistakes” in blissful ignorance.

Seeing Dahmer start nosediving irretrievably into a monster is a sad, frustrating experience.

Then, he changes. Perhaps spurred on by his well-meaning father to come out of his shell, Dahmer becomes an unlikely class clown. He gains sideshow freak fame for “doing a Dahmer” – pretending to have epilepsy or cerebral palsy in public places, which his classmates find funny. Derf, played unsympathetically by Alex Wolff, starts a Dahmer fan club and he becomes a weird mascot to their friendship group. “I think he’s kind of hilarious”, muses Derf, and for a while Jeffrey Dahmer seems to belong somewhere. They sneak him into school photos, meet the vice-president with him, and watch in horror as he savagely mutilates a fish. As Dahmer asks his roommate “Are your insides the same as my insides?”, we know it can’t end well.

Seeing Dahmer start nosediving irretrievably into a monster is a sad, frustrating experience. Any warmth or happiness he feels is short-lived – it’s clear that Derf and the gang are never really his friends. He obsesses over a local doctor, his sexuality becoming warped as he daydreams of lying next to his corpse. As he lurches around his school drinking more and more alcohol, you can’t believe nobody helped him. With so many angry young men going on to commit murder in America, the film feels more haunting and relevant than ever.

Marc Meyers has created a cautionary tale that does not excuse Jeffrey Dahmer, but it does try to understand him. It’s hard to reconcile Ross Lynch crying on the floor of his empty family home with the real Dahmer interviews. I also wonder how the True Crime Community (why does Tumblr have to ruin everything?) will react to goofy teenage Dahmer. My Friend Dahmer ends with a reminder of his 17 victims.

Did you know? The screenplay for this film was featured in the 2014 Blacklist, a list of the "most liked" unmade scripts of the year.

My Friend Dahmer is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 21 June

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