Jeffrey Dahmer remains one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, his gruesome activities ripe for an exploitation B movie. So, credit is due to writer-director Marc Meyers for this sensitive and acutely observed biopic of his adolescent years, before his murderous intentions took hold. Based on the graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, a former peer of Dahmer’s during his Ohio upbringing, it’s a painful study of an isolated teen who finds solace neither at home or school.
Set in 1977-1978, Dahmer (played by singer and former Disney star Ross Lynch) is a lonely student who lives with his father Lionel (Dallas Roberts), mother Joyce (Anne Heche) and younger brother Dave (Liam Koeth). Around him, his parents’ marriage is crumbling into a series of arguments, whilst his mother is gradually sliding towards mental illness. The macabre Dahmer takes to collecting dead animals and dissolving them in jars of acid.
At school, he resorts to literally making spasm sounds and movements to catch the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his two friends. They befriend him, forming the “Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club” and encouraging him to pull silly pranks; Derf also spends time drawing Dahmer – which would ultimately form the basis of My Friend Dahmer, published after his arrest in 1991, when he confessed to the murder of 17 men. But there’s always a sense that Derf is horrified by this strange outsider kid.
Subtly, Meyers shows that Dahmer is developing a closeted attraction to men; there’s a male jogger (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) that becomes his focus. Yet My Friend Dahmer is a deliberate slow-burn; we’re only ever given the briefest of hints of what this teenager will become even as the narrative leads up to his first victim, the hitchhiker Steve Hicks. Meyers is never interested in exposing the details of Dahmer’s crimes; rather the sad psychology that led him to such a place.
If there’s a misstep, it might be towards the end, in an unnerving scene with Derf, Dahmer and a baseball bat that feels more like a dream (or nightmare) than something that really happened. But for the most part, this is a well-intentioned coming-of-age drama that smartly conveys the inner turmoil of one of America’s most wanted.
My Friend Dahmer is on general release. For more details, click here.
1. Still from My Friend Dahmer. Courtesy of Altitude.