SDIFF Film Review: My Friend Dahmer (2017)

“I’m just like anybody else.” In a way, he was. Jeffrey Dahmer was a misunderstood teenager, just like most of us. We all can relate to such an emotion. Ones of feeling different than others, however to an extent that others can empathize with this difference, because they feel different as well. Even though Dahmer’s “difference” takes this example to an extreme, the argument still holds. While no one can forgive the crimes he ended up committing and the gruesome murders that ensued, it’s easy to see how his rocky transition into adulthood might’ve paved the way for his infamous actions.

In Marc Meyers’ chillingly familiar tale about the life of a high school student who had a hard time fitting in, the groundwork for Dahmer’s ultimate unveiling is laid out. Between his closet homosexuality, the zeitgeist of the 70s, and his abusively ignorant parents, the stage became set for Dahmer to become what he eventually did. The film, based on the graphic novel of the same title by John “Derf” Backderf, was based off of John’s relationship with Jeffrey in high school. He befriended Dahmer during the beginning of their senior year after Jeff started spazzing out in front of his classmates for attention. Dahmer, elegantly portrayed by Ross Lynch, views the laughs he gets as acceptance from his peers. In a scene where his teacher asks him a question, he responds with an emphatic “I don’t know!” paired with a slight twitch resembling someone suffering from cerebral palsy. This reference to a physically challenged person’s mannerisms makes the students laugh, and Dahmer cracks a half-smile.

This wasn’t a time that championed political correctness, so retarded people got made fun of and shy kids were called ‘nerd’ and ‘faggot’. Not wanting to become a ‘faggot,’ Dahmer did anything for acceptance. His dad, Lionel Dahmer (Dallas Roberts), would yell at him: “get out of your shell, something more… normal”. But what is “normal” to Lionel? In 1978, I can assure you that a part of that definition meant “straight”. Relatedly, this was the time in Jeffrey’s life when he found out that he was gay. As if he didn’t have a hard enough time fitting in already, now he couldn’t even tell his family how he felt, knowing his feelings would be discouraged. His mom, played by Anne Heche, was a little bit off her rocker and her relationship with Lionel wasn’t exactly one of mutual respect. Their divorce during Jeffrey’s senior year of high school, didn’t exactly help his circumstances. There was indeed a few ways in which Dahmer was struggling with coming to terms with who he was, and no one in his life was really there to help him.

Meyers does well with the script and his direction to portray Dahmer’s isolation in his own society. There a couple long shots, achieved by Daniel Katz’s cinematography, taken while Dahmer’s in school that juxtapose his movements with those of his peers. One is taken after the school bell rings and everyone is let out for the day. The students run around in excitement while Dahmer stands motionless in the archway. The only way in which Dahmer becomes enabled to branch out and connect with others is when he’s not being himself. Ross displays these emotions, as Dahmer, in a way where we can see that his enjoyment in being accepted is genuine, while at the time time letting us know that it’s all an act. His father surprises him with a pair of dumbbells, in an effort to make him ‘normal,’ and Jeffrey actually uses them. Not sarcastically or in such a fashion to stick it to his old man, he actually works out with them; the vigor in his arm movements contrasts with the plain stillness in his face. Again, he’s just acting for an audience—trying to become what society wants, but it doesn’t coincide with how he feels inside.

Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his small coterie don’t exactly represent the high school’s in-crowd. They themselves aren’t super popular but they have each other, and they understand each other. They represent a stereotypical friend group, and Dahmer’s way into normalcy. Backderf and his crew invite Dahmer into their clique, however only due to his recent activity as the “class clown”. While I think Backderf’s intentions were good, they’re actions perpetuate Dahmer’s insecurities. He becomes conditioned to think that this fake him is the only him that will be accepted, ultimately leading him to aggressively act out.

Knowing the history of Jeffrey Dahmer can make you cringe at times when watching this film because you know what these complications in his life are doing to him. He secretly observes Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser) while he goes on his runs throughout the film, and on the last one decides to bring a bat with him. His plan is clear to the audience, and we pay close attention, but this time the doctor never shows. He proceeds to take out his frustrations on a tree trunk, and the Jeffrey Dahmer that we’re all familiar with begins to take form.

There’s a hint of empathy felt in Dahmer’s story. He doesn’t understand the world around him. He’s also not the only loner in his class, Lloyd Figg (Miles Robbins) is also an outcast. However, his character is more stereotypical: coming from a poor family with violent issues, along with his association with drugs. Lloyd’s character conveys the type of outcast that Dahmer is not. They both share violent tendencies but Dahmer is able to play normal while Lloyd cannot. Early in the film, Lloyd asks Jeff if he’s trying to catch a buzz. Jeff’s eager to accept, but has no money on him, only his roadkill bag. In the next scene he traps and kills a squirrel; a delighted smirk etches across his face—he caught his buzz. The danger in the character of Jeffrey Dahmer is that he has no place in his society. Lloyd knows his place, and he embraces it. Dahmer would’ve most likely still existed today because we still here about similar instances. Although, for Dahmer in his era, no one was there for him and he felt isolated in his own misery; and thus a monster was born.

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