The one thought I couldn’t shake throughout the screening of director Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer, an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by artist Derf Backderf, is just that it would make an excellent double feature with a modern classic of American cinema, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Both share a time period, the 1970s, and a setting, an American high school, roughly around the same sort of upheaval that defined the Watergate era (though Dahmer takes place later on in history), and Meyers’ film puts the lie to Linklater’s love letter.
As the film’s title implies, it’s a study of young Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) during his high school days, which he was just an outcast fascinated by bones and longing for love and male affection in a society that was straight-up opposed to letting him exist without conflict. It’s an empathetic but not excuse-laden portrait of the killer as a young man, which should deeply disturb and upset viewers who might have suffered similar circumstances.
My Friend Dahmer works best as a wholesale indictment of the relationships, the structures and the era in which one of modern history’s greatest monsters arose. It’s fascinating to me that Backderf let the filmmakers get away with trashing him as much as they do here, though that might also have to do with the intense self-criticism that comes from the aged perspective. Derf (Alex Wolff), in the film, helps to make Dahmer a social pariah and misfit mascot for his school (his “spaz” routines which Derf encourages, in which he pretends to be an epileptic amongst other things in order to scare passerby, slowly grow sadder over the course of the film), essentially being the kind of awkward weird kid that even the band geeks can feel secure in their superiority over. It’s not necessarily truly angry at him, but rather what he represents: The cool kid who should know better, who should be aware of his torturous actions towards Jeff, but never has the self-knowledge to know what he’s doing isn’t very kind. But that’s the period, of course, where a kid like Dahmer could never totally feel at home in, with the gay slurs that are tossed around carelessly by midwestern teenagers and the lack of any and all diversity in his community or tolerance of it, and I don’t mean exclusively on a race level (though a scene with a black football player at one point in the film acts as both as an illustration of Jeff’s own naivety and thoughtless racism and a nasty harbinger of what’s to come).
His father wants him to be better than he was, to be less of the outcast that seemingly ruined his life before it even really had a chance to start, and that translates to painful ego-based heartlessness towards his son, smashing his (admittedly weird-ass) backyard laboratory and pushing him to lift weights and be cool and talk to girls. His mom (Anne Heche, lol) is whispered about and shunned by his father after a psychotic break that sent her briefly to an institution, and their divorce, and his father’s inability to cope with his mother, proves to be a psychic fracture in the young man’s life. I’ll say that the film definitely doesn’t ask for respect or for forgiveness or even tolerance of Dahmer’s ugly, evil actions, but it does ask for the slightest bit of empathy towards a kid who just never, ever had a chance to be anything else, who eluded all of the fail-safes designed to keep a kid like him social and well-adjusted in society. It’s to the film’s, and Lynch’s, the young actor portraying Dahmer, credit that this mostly goes off without a hitch, and this is partially due to the fact that it keeps a number of the beautiful and evocative visual touches that Backderf put in his own book- masking Jeff in shadow as a way of gently separating him from the crowd- and that it refuses not to acknowledge his darkened future. He stalks a jogging doctor (Pete Campbell himself, Vincent Kartheiser) and fantasizes about sleeping atop his corpse’s still chest.
It’s a brave and fascinating choice for Lynch, best known perhaps as one of the co-leads on the Disney Channel show Austin and Ally, and is perhaps the best turn by a Mouse-signed star in a major indie production since Selena Gomez was in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. He devotes himself entirely to the role, embodying the specific awkwardness of a kid like Dahmer — glaring eyes, perpetual grimace, hunched shoulders — and has none of the reservations that one might expect when taking on a project like this. He lets us see the person behind all of the chaos and terror, and I can tell you without a doubt that the film wouldn’t have worked half as well without him in the lead role. My Friend Dahmer is an elusive and interesting examination of its subject’s roots, and deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest, no matter how mild, in seeing how a uniquely American anomaly was formed.