My Friend Dahmer is a serial killer movie with a difference: there’s no killing in it. In fact, there’s barely any violence at all. Instead, this is a study of the boy who made the man. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by John ‘Derf’ Backderf, the film depicts Jeffrey Dahmer’s final year in high school. The young Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is troubled: his parents’ volatile marriage ends in an acrimonious divorce, his mother and father fighting for custody of his younger brother and ownership of the family home, without seeming to care what happens to him.
At school, he’s a bit of an outsider, but Derf (Alex Wolff) is intrigued when Dahmer ‘spazzes out’ in the hallway, pretending to have an epileptic fit. The audacity and impropriety are enough to make Dahmer a bit of a legend; in response, Derf and his friends Neill (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer) form ‘The Dahmer Fan Club’. At first, Dahmer is flattered: he has friends to hang out with and is no longer ignored, but he soon realises that the trio are laughing at him as much as with him, that he’s a kind of sideshow novelty who just amuses them.
Meanwhile, his fascination with ‘the inside of things’ is thriving, even after his concerned father tears down the shed where he has been dissolving roadkill in acid (‘I like bones,’ he says, like that explains something). Neighbourhood pets are found dissected; a local doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) becomes an object of malign fantasy as he jogs past Dahmer’s house each day. Dahmer starts drinking, knocking back bottles of vodka in the schoolyard. The future is beckoning; they’re all supposed to know what they want. But he just mumbles, ‘biology’ when he’s asked about his interests, and clearly has no real idea what path he wants to take. He tries to fit in; he even asks a girl to prom, but it’s all too much. He can’t.
This is a compelling film with an unusual perspective, demonstrating as it does that Dahmer is not that different from any other reluctant outsider, his quirks and perversions not so very peculiar. There’s a real attempt here to understand rather than monster him, to examine the distinct set of circumstances that inform his later crimes.
Ross Lynch’s performance is remarkable: the utter, unrelenting misery of the ignored, invisible child is conveyed in his shambling gait, his closed-off expression. Occasionally, Lynch shows us who else Dahmer might have become: the way his face lights up as Derf invites him to sit with him at lunch; the fumbling charm with which he asks Bridget to the prom. But these fleeting moments of belonging are dwarfed by isolation, and ultimately we are left with a sense of someone who’ll do anything to make sure people notice him.
It’s fascinating – definitely one to watch.