My Friend Dahmer
2017, R, 107 min. Directed by Marc Meyers. Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 17, 2017
Not all comics are about superheroes. Not all comics are fictional. Not all comics have a happy ending. In breaking all the box office rules about what to expect from a comic book movie, My Friend Dahmer becomes one of the year’s most chilling true-life dramas.
Most serial killer biopics center on the crimes, consequences, or victims. Instead, this retelling of the life of Jeffrey Dahmer is adapted from cartoonist Derf Backderf’s autobiographical graphic novel, capturing the artist’s high school friendship with the future serial killer: It’s a slice of small-town Ohio life. Jeff (Lynch) is bookish, shy, and just smart and big enough to avoid the attentions of his high school’s bullies. He finally gains a few friends, including Backderf (Wolff), by play-acting crazy – or as they call it, doing a Dahmer.
But when the guys aren’t around, there’s a different Jeff, one that’s more John Wayne Gacy than John Belushi. The one that would go on to kill 17 men, and practice rape and necrophilia. The one who would become infamous as the Milwaukee Cannibal. Cut out the black shadow of real murders, and My Friend Dahmer is a coming-of-age story about an awkward kid from a dysfunctional family. Oddly, it’s got far more in common with Dazed and Confused than it does with Zodiac.
At the core is an unnerving and mesmerizing performance by Austin & Ally star Lynch, who may have managed the most revolutionary reinvention for a Disney Channel alum since Ryan Gosling started dating a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl. His Jeff is a loner desperately trying to be popular and struggling with his sexuality and that is his tragedy; yet he is also dangerous and manipulative, emulating his peers to get by, and disguising what he is becoming. When the lens settles on Lynch, My Friend Dahmer is enthralling. When it drifts away from him, it starts to lose focus. Backderf and the gang are interchangeable teens, while the Dahmer family becomes a little overblown. Those scenes are mostly cut from whole cloth, rather than taken from Backderf’s book, and lack the source material’s grounded strangeness. Anne Heche as Jeff’s mom Joyce is a particular weak spot, veering at times into pastiche rather than neurotic. Yet Lynch himself is revelatory, pushing past those structural issues and binding together everything seemingly contradictory about Dahmer into a portrait that explains with empathy, without glossing over the hideous reality.
A version of this review ran online as part of our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage.