Recent Comments

    My Friend Dahmer Deftly Portrays Teen Years of Gay Serial Killer

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    My Friend Dahmer is Marc Meyers’ sharp, smart adaptation of Derf Backderf’s graphic novel about the teen years of gay, cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. This outstanding drama, based on a true story, opened November 10 at the Roxie.

    The film depicts Jeffrey’s (Ross Lynch) agonizing young life, as if to provide an explanation for some of his later criminal behaviors. In high school, Jeffrey is a social outcast, often eating alone at lunch. He likes to spend his free time after school in a hut out in his backyard taking road kill he finds on the street and dissolving it in acid. He certainly wants to escape from his parents, Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), who are often fighting. Joyce is rather unstable, and Lionel, who eventually moves out, wants Jeffrey to “get out of his shell, and be more normal.”

    Jeffrey soon befriends a trio of guys as a high school senior, after he starts faking seizures for attention (or comic effect) in the school hallways. Derf (Alex Wolff), Neil (Tommy Nelson), and Mike (Harrison Holzer) are so amused by Jeffrey’s antics they form a “fan club.” They conspire to pull pranks, like having Jeffrey pose in every school club photo for the yearbook. They even respect Jeffery when he initiates what becomes a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale on a class trip to Washington, DC. But they also are a bit freaked out by Jeffery at times, especially when he starts drinking heavily. 

    My Friend Dahmer generates its tension and intrigue by having every scene freighted with meaning. When his father gifts Jeffrey a set of dumbbells, it is hard not to recall that he later used weights to bludgeon one of his victims. Likewise, there are scenes of animal cruelty, as when he kills a fish he caught to see what’s inside. Jeffrey also plays with animal bones (he likes the sound they make). These moments are indicative of his future crimes.

    One of the most interesting aspects of this fascinating character study has Jeffrey becoming obsessed with a jogger, who Mike explains is Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser). When Jeffrey pays a visit to Dr. Matthews for a physical, he silently acknowledges his same-sex attraction. When Dr. Matthews asks if Jeffrey is sexually active, the teen replies, “What kind?” Jeffrey later masturbates and fantasizes about cuddling with Dr. Matthews in bed. It is not erotic.

    The film effectively creates an atmosphere of menace, which is why it is so compelling. When Jeffrey and the school’s burnout case, Lloyd Figg (Miles Robbins), head into the woods, Lloyd pulls a gun to play Russian roulette. It becomes a tense encounter in which Jeffrey is unsettled. Later, however, Jeffrey is seen stalking Dr. Matthews by hiding in the bushes with a baseball bat, only to react badly when Dr. Matthews fails to appear. 

    Meyers is asking viewers to understand Jeffrey, if not to sympathize with this misfit teen. Jeffrey is shown trying to forge his own identity, and his efforts such as acting out with his fake seizures, or drinking and becoming more withdrawn, are depicted as being ineffective. He certainly appears to be bright and clever, but he is socially awkward.

    One of the most interesting scenes has Jeffrey asking a girl to the prom—to prove he can get a date. It is hard not to cringe when the photographer asks Jeffrey and his date to move closer together (he obviously has no interest in her), and when they start to dance, and Jeffrey does not know where to put his hands. He soon excuses himself and leaves her at the dance to go be alone in his car. The scene is funny, sad, and weird all at once. The period details of the cars and costumes only help bring this scene—and the film—vividly to life.

    My Friend Dahmer also benefits from Ross Lynch’s unflinching performance as the title character. Lynch, whose career mostly consists of work for the Disney Channel, is suitably creepy in the film, but he is also quite funny. He gets the gawkiness of adolescence down pat, moving his body in ways that suggest a discomfort with himself and the world he lives in. Just watching him sitting and staring into space as his parents fight is unnerving.

    In support, Anne Heche is fantastic as the shrewish Joyce, a woman who seems to have no filter, and Dallas Roberts is superb. He makes Lionel’s anguish palpable. As Jeffrey’s friends Derf, Neil, and Mike, Alex Wolff, Tommy Nelson, and Harrison Holzer are all uniformly strong.

    My Friend Dahmer may walk the fine line between satire and horror, but the film succeeds because it is not judgmental. The dots are there to be connected, while the warning signs for Dahmer’s horrific future are both clear and chilling.

    © 2017 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer