John Wayne Gacy. Son of Sam. The Hillside Strangler. It’s fascinating to see serial killers rise in fame alongside pop culture icons such as Elvis Presley or Madonna. One of the most gruesome butchers to emerge from the 20th century was Jeffrey Dahmer, an Ohio native who preyed on 17 young men and even ate some of their corpses.
The nature vs. nurture debate has been a psychological battle for decades, especially when it came to murderers’ minds and motivation. Is the childhood environment a primary factor or is their brained just wired that way? In Dahmer’s case, it’s a little bit of both. My Friend Dahmer was originally published as a graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who was a classmate of Jeffery’s in high school. It chronicles Jeffery’s senior year of high school before he became the infamous serial killing cannibal. Director/writer, Mark Myers, crisply directs this unconventional feature, turning it into more of a character study than a traditional biopic.
Jeffery, an awkward kid who has no friends, is living with a mentally unstable mother and a father who desperately wants his son to be normal. It seems to check off all of the cliche conventions in a dramatic teenage story. But eventually, we see Jeffrey start to descend into madness, starting with consuming copious amounts of alcohol to fantasizing about sleeping with his male doctor’s unconscious body. Myers is particularly sensitive about his approach, making it a point to not completely humanize him. He balances Dahmer’s tumultuous home life, while also quietly depicting Dahmer’s fascination with the macabre.
Ex-Disney Channel star Ross Lynch abandons the kiddie pool and jumps immediately into the deep end with this heavy role. To kids who know Lynch from his Disney days, they may be traumatized by him. For those who are seeing him for the first time, they’ll see a young actor with a hell of a debut. Lynch brings an incredibly nuanced performance as a lonely, damaged youth who gradually turns into one of America’s most notorious serial killers. He hides behind a mop of blonde hair and aviator glasses, permanently holding an emotionless gaze. That cold and distant behavior suddenly changes when he launches into a routine that involves intense spazzing and mocking his mom’s interior decorator, who has cerebral palsy. His gimmick earns him the attention of a group of pranksters, lead by John “Derf” Backderf (Alex Wolff). But they start treating him like a freak sideshow and eventually distance themselves from his alcoholic personality.
Myers could have gone down the route of exploitation and featured some of his murder victims, but he did the exact opposite. This isn’t necessarily an origin story; it’s a high school movie about seeing someone you thought was a friend change right in front of your eyes. In Backderf’s comic book, you can sense his guilt for essentially bullying Dahmer, but Myers emphasizes that he wasn’t at fault for his old friend’s tragic decline.He’s able to humanize Dahmer without minimizing his horrific crimes, and by doing so, gives us an engrossing glimpse into the infamous serial killer.