Lost Weekend VIII Review: My Friend Dahmer
“You want to seem normal, right?” Literally the most persuasive phrase to a high school student. For those four years, normalcy carries more social cachet than any other attribute – more than being ambitious, creative, smart, or even interesting. Being normal is a tremendous achievement as well, because the definition is so narrow that virtually all of us have some outstanding weirdness to stuff. It can be a shameful family member, or an embarrassing hobby, or poor posture, or a complete lack of friends, but whatever it is, it will take constant vigilance to keep your oddity under wraps, because the second the slightly off-normals smell it, they’ll exploit it for all its worth.
The film My Friend Dahmer, directed by Marc Meyers, is based on the comic book memoir of the same name by writer/artist John “Derf” Backderf about his time at Revere High School with classmate Jeffrey Dahmer and the events leading up to the events of Dahmer’s first murder. It is a deeply sad and sympathetic portrait of a kid named Jeffrey who failed at normal so utterly and eventually became one of America’s most notorious and twisted serial killers.
You can’t help but watch My Friend Dahmer with profound suspicion. For the entirety of the film, Jeffrey (Ross Lynch) is so clearly spiraling out of control and no one is trying to slow his roll. It makes everyone seem culpable. The first to recognize that Jeffrey is not normal is his dad, Lionel (Dallas Roberts). His son’s fascination with anatomy, which Lionel initially considered just a healthy, scientific curiosity, has become an all-consuming obsession. Lionel wants to see his son live a more connected life than he had, but dealing with Jeffrey’s manic mother, Joyce (Anne Heche), leaves Lionel with the energy and emotional fortitude for only most cursory and miscalculated solutions. When Jeffrey begins acting out at school with some pretty bizarre attention-seeking behavior, the adult authority figures meet him with impatience and dismissal. Another student, John Backderf (Alex Wolff), who has some weirdness of his own because of his interest in cartooning and a peculiar sense of humor, sees Jeffrey’s eccentric antics as an opportunity. John hatches a scheme to bully Jeffrey that is as insidious as it ingenious, but it ultimately puts him face to face with how broken Jeffrey really is.
Ross Lynch moves through the role of Jeffrey Dahmer with a muted angst. Everything about Jeffrey seems slowed down mentally, physically, and emotionally, like he might realize the disturbed horror of his actions if he could just catch up to them. Lynch’s performance demands the unnerved fascination of the audience. Anne Heche’s Joyce serves as stark foil to Jeffrey. She is manic and agitated. She furiously tears through emotions, from empowered optimism to paranoia to hurt, with no regard for her family crouched defensively around her. It is Alex Wolff’s Derf Backderf that seems in most control of his reality, which makes his actions somehow more villainous. Wolff captures the inflated confidence, the sense of superiority, bullying can give. He is jazzed every time he can pull one over on Jeffrey, an elation that overrides the creeping sense of guilt he catches when he is exposed to Jeffrey’s dire personal life.
My Friend Dahmer is a film, based on a book, based on a memory, so who knows how far removed from the truth this story is. What is true is that Jeffrey Dahmer was a teenager once, presumably doing the best he could to seem normal, and all of us can identify with how terrible, lonely, and out of control that can feel. The fact that Marc Meyer’s My Friend Dahmer can evoke empathy for one of America’s monsters, the Milwaukee Cannibal, torturer and killer of 17 men and boys, is a feat that cannot be ignored. You will leave the theater alarmed and demoralized, wondering what pre-Dahmers are slipping through society’s fingers because we can’t muster the courage to save them and save ourselves.
Reviewer’s Note - The Lost Weekend is a biannual Film Festival that takes place at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia, programmed and hosted by their extraordinary creative manager, Andy Gyurisin. This is a festival that features independent and foreign films, many of which are advance screenings. You’ll see movies you didn’t even know you needed to see and can’t see anywhere else. Follow Andy, @cinemabandwagon, on twitter to get more info on Lost Weekend IX. You’d be a fool to miss it.