20th Mar2018

Glasgow Film Festival 2018: ‘My Friend Dahmer’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Miles Robbins, Vincent Kartheiser | Written and Directed by Marc Meyers


Based on the acclaimed true-life graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, this compelling and unsettling teen drama is part serial killer prequel and part high school coming of age movie.

Former Disney Channel star Ross Lynch plays future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (who would go on to murder 17 young men and even eat some of them) in his final year of high school in 1977-1978 Ohio. Largely ignored by his fellow students, Jeffrey takes to pretending to have a fit in the school corridors and is unexpectedly adopted by a trio of nerdy outsiders lead by wannabe cartoonist Derf (Alex Wolff), who look upon his “spazzing out” routine as a sort of performance art.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey finds himself unable to deal with his feelings for a bearded jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) he sees from the school bus every morning and throws himself into his preferred hobby: scooping up roadkill and dissolving the bodies in acid obtained from his chemist father (Dallas Roberts). At the same time, relations between his father and his erratic, volatile mother (Anne Heche) begin to sour, leaving Jeffrey feeling even more alienated as his already chaotic home life becomes increasingly toxic.

Cast effectively against type (his pre-teen fanbase should probably prepare themselves for a shock), Lynch is mesmerising as Jeffrey, completely inhabiting the character, from his oddly slouching walk to his unnervingly blank stare and his seeming refusal to ever crack a smile. Similarly, Roberts is engaging as Jeffrey’s beaten-down father, while Heche is a bolt of angry energy as his unstable mother, so much so that she almost deserves a movie to herself. On top of that, Wolff is superb as Derf (who based the book on his real-life high school experience with Dahmer), striking a complex balance between genuine affection for Jeffrey while also knowing that he and his friends are exploiting his weirdness for their own amusement.

That astute understanding of the high school relationship dynamics is one of the film’s strongest elements – it’s worth pointing out that Jeffrey is smart enough to recognise that he’s being exploited, but he also realises that his three new friends represent his best chance at surviving the final year of high school, as underlined in a heart-breaking scene where he refuses to help a former (and weaker) friend when he’s being bullied (tellingly, it’s implied that that original friendship might have lead to a tentative relationship).

Meyers’ script is consistently intriguing, finding genuine empathy and understanding for Jeffrey and generating an atmosphere of pervasive sadness, not least in the implicit idea that if Jeffrey had been able to express his sexual desires, things might have turned out differently.

Meyers’ direction is equally impressive, establishing a tone that encompasses emotional drama, unsettling tension and black comedy, as well as more innocently amusing moments, like the school prank where Dahmer pops up in every school club photo for the yearbook or a class trip to Washington that results in a surprise meeting. In terms of the horror elements, this is very much a prequel, so it ends as Dahmer’s killing spree begins, but there are plenty of chilling moments along the way, such as a horribly suspenseful scene where he leads a neighbour’s big, friendly dog into the woods and you know exactly what he’s planning.

By turns suspenseful, darkly funny and surprisingly moving, this is superbly acted and sharply written drama that leaves a lasting impression.

**** 4/5

My Friend Dahmer is set for release across the UK on June 1st


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