Not for the squeamish or easily triggered, the haunting, sad and surprisingly tender My Friend Dahmer tells the true story of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer, in high school, before he became notorious for his shocking and grisly crimes. Written for the screen and directed by Marc Meyers, this film is based on the acclaimed 2012 graphic novel of the same name by real-life Dahmer classmate and former friend Derf Backderf (played by Alex Wolff in the film).
With pitch-perfect period detail, impressive for what must have been a low-budget, the film takes place in the late 1970’s. Jeff (played by former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch) is an awkward, lanky teenager struggling to make it through high school with a family life in ruins. Torn between an insufferable self-obsessed, dangerously unhinged mother (Anne Heche, channeling some of her own public battles with mental illness) and a neglectful, milquetoast father (Dallas Roberts), young Jeff spends most of his time in the shed out back, dissolving the remains of roadkill in jars of acid stolen from his dad’s chemistry lab.
Once he starts acting out in school, faking epileptic seizures in the hallways, his bizarre behavior attracts the attention of some new potential buddies , a trio of National Lampoon-loving band nerds. Taken with Jeff’s bizarre ways, these new, unexpected friends form “The Dahmer Fan Club” and illustrate his escalating pranks and antics. But as they near graduation, Jeff’s depravity continues to take hold, and he spirals further out of control, alienating everyone around him who hasn’t already abandoned him of their own accord.
A subplot features “Mad Men” star Vincent Kartheiser as a doctor who becomes the unwitting object of young Jeffrey’s desire. It culminates in a routine physical that gets Jeffrey a little too “excited.”
It would be easy to mistake My Friend Dahmer for a standard coming-of-age tale in the vein of “Freaks and Geeks” were we not all aware of the monster that our lead character would become. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen men and boys – most of them African-American – in the American Midwest, becoming one of history’s most infamous serial killers. The film takes every opportunity to subvert expectations. There is no on-screen murder to be shocked by here. The film works more subtly, showing both the nature and nurture (or lack thereof) that contributed to such heinous violence.