There have been movies based on true stories, just as there have been those based on comic books and graphic novels. Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, based on John “Derf” Backderf’s autobiographical comic of the same name, is both, making it one of those rare movies like American Splendor that gives you a fine-tuned and specific view of a well-known person from someone who knew them.
In this case, and it you haven’t figured it out from the title, it’s a study of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his senior year of high school, and it’s a very different movie than some might be expecting, since it’s more teen angst drama than horror or thriller.
Set in 1978, the film takes place during Dahmer’s senior year of high school in Ohio. Most of the other kids ignore him, as he quietly collects roadkill to experiment on in a laboratory he’s created in a shack behind his house. His parents are constantly squabbling, driving him deeper into his shell until the point when he decides, for no particular reason, to freak out in an attempt to shake up his classmates. This gets the attention of the school’s main troublemakers, including Derf (Alex Wolff from Patriot’s Day). They begin to hang out with Jeffrey and start involving him in their pranks, the more elaborate one involving Jeffrey sneaking into the yearbook pictures for every one of his school’s clubs.
At first, My Friend Dahmer feels like a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and the work of Daniel Clowes, who is presumably an influence on Derf’s own comics work. Still, there is always the undercurrent that you’re watching the early years of someone who would go on to kill 17 boys and men in unthinkable ways. At times, the movie may seem obvious in creating its origin story for the future serial killer, but it’s more convincing as you experience the Dahmer family dynamics and how his parents’ impending divorce drives him to alcohol and more extensive experiments on animals.
If there’s one thing that everyone can take away from My Friend Dahmer, it’s the brilliant understated performance by Ross Lynch (star of Disney’s Austin & Ally TV series). Lynch doesn’t have to do much to convey the loneliness and confusion of a teenager watching his family fall apart and who is unable to get much-needed approval from his father. At the same time, he’s beginning to explore his own sexuality due to his confusing interest in a doctor who jogs past his house. The fact Lynch is able to create so much empathy for someone who will become one of the country’s most notorious murderers plays a large part in why this film should be taken seriously.
Alex Wolff and the rest of the young cast also do a suitable job as Jeffrey’s classmates, and as someone who attended high school during the times before cellphones and the internet, I can attest that Meyers’ ability to capture what that feels like is also quite impressive. While one of Derf’s friends does eventually start feeling bad about the way they’re treating Jeffrey for easy laughs, these are exactly the type of dumb things that kids got up to during those times.
There are a few times in the movie you’ll be wondering if what you’re witnessing really happened. For instance, did Derf and Dahmer really meet Vice President Mondale during a school trip to Washington? We just have to take Derf’s word from it, since presumably Meyers got that scene from the graphic novel.
As one might expect, things get considerably darker in the final act, including a tense moment that’s right out of David Fincher’s Zodiac, but it’s an effective tonal transition that helps add to the inevitable, ending the movie just before it gets into Dahmer’s actual murders, which have been well documented.
While the tone varies widely at times, which is appropriate given the subject matter, My Friend Dahmer creates a character that feels all too real, and it’s a welcome twist on the serial killer genre. That authenticity carries through to all parts of the film.
My Friend Dahmer premiered as part of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. We’ll let you know when it has a wider release date.