Biopics always offer the potential for an interesting peek into the life of a historical figure, but they often can be a slog in boredom. It usually boils down to the director’s decisions on which aspects of the individual’s life to focus on and how to present it. There is probably no better comparison than Joshua Michael Stern’s film Jobs (2013) versus Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015). Hearing about My Friend Dahmer (2017), a film that looks a the high school life of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, inspired excitement of a Boyle-style glimpse into this madman’s world but turned out to feel more like Stern’s passable slog.
My Friend Dahmer was a bit of a letdown
Early in the film, we see Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) taking two of his peers to his shack that is full of dead animals decomposing in jars of acid. The warning signs were strong, but in the late ‘70s, it was apparently easier to just encourage your son to get out of his death shack and into more clubs. Dahmer decides it would be easy to get friends if he “spazzed” out in populated areas at school. He was right. It’s after witnessing the “spazzing” that John ‘Derf’ Backderf (Alex Wolff), who wrote the book the film is based on, decides to befriend the oddity that is Dahmer.
There are moments that director Marc Meyers is able to effectively craft some creepy scenes. Lynch’s performance here is markedly different than any of his Disney performances I’ve seen. His hunched shoulders and stoic expression make it seem impossible that it’s the same kid from Teen Beach Movie (2013). Yet his charm shows through in a few scenes, and it seems accidental given the character that is developed. Wolff continues to impress in his role as the individual who is friends with Dahmer the year before he claims to have made his first kill. The premise alone sounds so intriguing, but the execution is missing something.
This film falls into the boring biopic category
Possibly in an attempt to earn some sympathy for the serial killer, a lot of the film focuses on his parents: Joyce (Anne Heche) and Lionel Dahmer (Dallas Roberts). It is heavily implied that his mother suffers from some psychological disorder and Heche – who is shown almost predominantly from long distance for some reason – channels her inner Megan Mullally for the role. We see that the pending divorce is very hard on Jeffrey, and Lynch gets some opportunities to showcase his dramatic side. There is a lot of time spent with his new found friends, and Lynch “spazzing” out in various situations. The high schoolers all got a big kick out of it, but no laughs were had in my house. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be funny or alarming for the viewer, but it leaned towards the latter.
The biggest flaw with the film (and I will assume the same with the book) is that it puts the camera in the perspective of Dahmer rather than Derf. Everything going on with Dahmer is clearly fictionalized unless Derf is around to observe it. This would mean that most of the beginning of the film is speculation, including a scene where Dahmer is torn up about his parents, and another depicting him stalking a local jogger (which is one of the creepiest – and best – aspects of the film) are all just scripted moments for the film. It is completely fine to sensationalize a story in a work of fiction, but usually, when that’s done it is to add intrigue and drama; it’s underutilized here. If the film had focused on Derf and his observations of Dahmer, an enigmatic character that Derf finds himself both intrigued by and terrified of, a far better narrative could have been constructed. In fact, half of the ending that we’re treated to in this film would have paid off much better, had that been the attempt.
Overall, I was a little disappointed with My Friend Dahmer. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not one I would likely watch again. While the performances are fine and there aren’t any glaring problems, it’s ultimately a little boring. My Friend Dahmer earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.