Director: Marc Meyers
Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts, and Anne Heche
What if someone you knew at school grew up to be a serial killer? This was what happened to John ‘Derf’ Backderf, whose award-winning 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer told the tale of a teenage Backderf’s acquaintance with a young man called Jeffrey Dahmer, who would ultimately become one of the 20th century’s most infamous murderers. It’s a fascinating tale, but sadly Marc Meyer’s workmanlike film adaptation can’t quite bring the story to life.
Set in 1978, the film introduces us to Dahmer (played by former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch) as an odd, withdrawn high school senior whose main hobby is collecting dead animals he finds by the side of the road and dissolving their flesh in acid. He’s got problems at home, where his medicated, mentally unwell mother (Anne Heche) is causing chaos and butting heads with his increasingly unhappy and emotionally drained father (Dallas Roberts).
Acting out at school, he is noticed by Derf (Alex Woolf) and his friends, who interpret Dahmer’s bizarre antics – in particular, a routine where he pretends to have epileptic fits in the school hallways – as a form of anti-establishment performance art. They adopt him as a sort of mascot, but while Dahmer initially welcomes this unexpected group of new friends, he gradually develops a humiliating awareness that they are laughing at him more than they are with him.
My Friend Dahmer is a reliably well-acted film, with Heche, in particular, making a big impression, but it’s Lynch who is the film’s secret weapon. He gives an intensely physical performance – hunched, looming, and heavy-footed, he appears not so much to walk along as drag himself from place to place. It’s a convincing portrait of a man who’s losing the battle against the demons that are threatening to take him over, but there are also glimpses of a certain calculating charm, not least during an intriguing scene in which he persuades a girl, against her better judgement, to attend prom with him.
Despite Lynch’s performance, however, My Friend Dahmer rarely truly enthrals. In part that’s because of a change in perspective from the source material. Whereas the graphic novel was written from Derf’s perspective, My Friend Dahmer takes Dahmer himself as its main character. In doing so, it sacrifices Derf’s introspection for a more conventional approach. And yet despite the change in focus, it too often fails to truly get under Dahmer’s skin, and some newly added embellishments relating to Dahmer’s closeted homosexuality – including a scene in which Dahmer makes an appointment for a physical with a doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) with whom he has become obsessed – don’t quite work. There’s something overly familiar, even de rigeur, about the film, right down to the increasingly well-worn 70s aesthetic.
To My Friend Dahmer‘s credit, it never crosses a line into easy sensationalism – this is a sombre, thoughtful piece, and its portrayal of simmering nerd resentment and cruelty feels oddly topical in an era of school shootings and incel violence. But though it’s a well-acted and competently staged adaptation, only in a few scenes – including a late encounter between Dahmer and Derf in which Dahmer’s repressed rage finally threatens to bubble over – does it really grip. In the end, this portrait of the serial killer as a young man offers only surface level insight.