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Review: My Friend Dahmer: "a rare treat in a sea of bland biographical dramas"

Benjamin Smart reviews the biographical film My Friend Dahmer that traces the life of infamous series killer Jeffrey Dahmer.*

Adapted from the graphic novel by John Backderf of the same name, My Friend Dahmer is a biographical drama that follows the teenage years of infamous Midwestern serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Set in the 1970s, the story examines the inner workings of Dahmer (Ross Lynch) as he tackles not only the growing darkness within him but the emotional pitfalls of navigating puberty.

It is an uncomfortable watch. Not because the film is particularly graphic in its approach to depicting Dahmer’s crimes, but due to the sympathetic perspective of watching his struggles through high school. From battling his burgeoning homosexuality to witnessing his attempts at gaining friends, Marc Meyers direction of the film paints Dahmer as a tortured individual and, as a result, gives depth to someone who is commonly known as one of the biggest monsters of the 20th century.

Photo: Facebook / My Friend Dahmer

As with most monsters, the film focuses on his troubled home life. Whilst clichéd in terms of an origin story, its presence within the narrative is crucial to gaining a better understanding of the world that Dahmer occupies. Neglected by a chemically imbalanced mother (Anne Heche) and overworked father (Dallas Roberts), Dahmer finds his solace from the chaos of his life by retreating to the confines of his homemade laboratory. Here he experiments with dissolving roadkill and conducting all manners of unorthodox tests, demonstrating the inner machinations of someone trying to gain control of their life after spending years in the shadow of others.

Whilst the experiments he conducts are vile, the camera frames the action from Dahmer’s perspective, enabling the viewer to gain an insight into his childlike obsession with seeing the insides of his subjects.

"The repression of the character’s true self is like a caged animal that, when it is made visible, leads to some truly shocking moments"

These early trials show no malice to his intent, just a young man attempting to gain insight into the natural world. This makes My Friend Dahmer difficult to watch at times.

The audience’s prior knowledge of the real life character - he killed and raped 17 men and boys between the ages of 18 and 31 - paints him in a negative light, but the character we see in this film is a tortured young man, a victim of circumstance and his own mental instability. There are glimpses of brightness in his life as a newfound friend, and future biographer, John ‘Derf’ Backderf (Alex Wolff), builds a fan club around the misfit giving Dahmer the attention he craves.

Yet these moments of joy do not last. Much like Carrie (1976), the high school drama that takes place is pivotal in shaping the character of Jeffrey Dahmer and it is here that actor Lynch shines in his performance. Whilst still as awkward as any other teenager would be, his unconventional desires and traumatic home life mean that he must adopt the mask of a ‘normal’ student. His forced interactions with others are tinged with an unnerving energy that alludes to his inner darkness whilst still conveying the outward appearance of a high school student. The repression of the character’s true self is like a caged animal that, when it is made visible, leads to some truly shocking moments.

My Friend Dahmer is a rare treat in a sea of bland biographical dramas. Instead of capitalising on the horrors that we, as an audience, are already aware of, it takes some bold risks in depicting an infamous killer in a new light. Whilst the supporting cast are strong, the film excels because of Ross Lynch’s performance. His approach to character Dahmer is to humanise the inhuman traits and present his atypical behaviour as not just an act, but the result of prolonged inner turmoil.

My Friend Dahmer is being shown at Watershed until the 14th June and available to rent or buy digitally on Amazon.

Featured image: Facebook / My Friend Dahmer

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