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New to Netflix - MY FRIEND DAHMER

My Friend Dahmer review
A teenage Jeffrey Dahmer makes some new friends.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Marc Meyers

Starring: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Vincent Kartheiser

my friend dahmer poster

Between 1978 and 1991, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 male victims, committing his first homicide at the age of 18. Other killers have been more prolific, but Dahmer's story sent an extra shiver down the spines of news consumers when it was revealed that after murdering his victims, Dahmer hung on to their corpses, indulging in necrophilia and cannibalism, his apartment housing a freezer stacked with body parts.

Dahmer's story has been told on screen before - in 1993's The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer and 2002's Dahmer, which starred a then unknown Jeremy Renner in the title role - but both those previous movies focussed on his serial killing endeavours. Writer/director Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer takes us back to 1978, to the weeks leading up to young Dahmer's first act of murder.

My Friend Dahmer review

Played by Ross Lynch, Dahmer is the classic awkward teen, eating alone in the school canteen, avoiding the attention of bullies and concealing his homosexuality. After school he combs the roads of his small Ohio town for roadkill, taking his finds to a shack filled with the decomposing and fermented corpses of animals, which he dissolves in acid. When a disgusted kid asks Dahmer why he engages in such a morbid practice, he simply replies "I like to see what's inside us."

At home, Dahmer does his best to keep out of the way of his pill-popping mother, Joyce (Anne Heche delivering a Megan Mullally impersonation), and his long-suffering father, Lionel (Dallas Roberts), who does his best to encourage his son to live a more conventional life.

When Dahmer begins acting like a clown in the halls of his school, feigning epileptic spasms and behaving as though mentally challenged, he catches the attention of classmate John Backderf (Alex Wolff), a comedy fan who finds Dahmer's antics hilarious and takes him under his wing. Backderf's relationship with Dahmer is highly manipulative, as he encourages Dahmer's increasingly anti-social behaviour, often catching it on a Super 8 camera. Meanwhile, Dahmer is beginning to have violent sexual fantasies regarding the town doctor (Vincent Kartheiser), and is developing a taste for alcohol.

My Friend Dahmer review

My Friend Dahmer
is an adaptation of a graphic novel by Backderf, who grew up to become a respected cartoonist, but though its title suggests the film will be told from Backderf's perspective, that's far from the case. Meyers tells Dahmer's story with the titular killer-to-be front and centre, giving us imagined glimpses of Dahmer's homelife that Backderf wouldn't have been privy to. I can't speak to how Backderf portrays himself in his graphic novel, but Meyers certainly doesn't paint him in a good light. In the most difficult to watch sequence, Backderf has a whip around among his friends, raising enough cash to convince Dahmer to engage in a command performance of spasmic writhing in the town shopping mall while he and his friends laugh from the sidelines. While it's clear that the deranged Dahmer was destined for infamy himself, you can't help but wonder if Backderf is haunted by his one-sided friendship with his class clown.

Much of Meyers' film plays like a nostalgic teen buddy movie, and you could be excused for believing you had tuned into a particularly dark episode of Freaks and Geeks at points. There are even hints at the successful life the intelligent Dahmer might have had, like when he uses his moxy to meet Vice President Walter Mondale while on a school trip to Washington, or when he invites a girl to the prom and surprises her with his gentlemanly ways. But then there's the jars full of roadkill, the animal carcasses strung around the nearby woods, and Dahmer's habit of hiding in bushes wielding a baseball bat.

Lynch is a young actor I'm unfamiliar with, having emerged from the same Disney stable that gave us Ryan Gosling and Zac Efron, a teen idol cast against type here. Knowing that should he remove his overbearing spectacles, straighten his posture and get a haircut, Lynch's Dahmer might be the school heartthrob, adds an extra layer of tragedy to his story.

My Friend Dahmer review

Lynch is a real find, but perhaps the most impressive performance comes from Roberts as his father, a financially successful but bitterly unhappy man who gives the impression that he knows something awful lies ahead for his son. The scenes between Lynch and Roberts portray a very reserved 1970s father/son relationship, and you'll find yourself willing the latter to embrace his child rather than delivering trite sermons about leading a 'normal' life. Elsewhere, Dahmer's teachers sleep off hangovers in the classroom, and when the aroused teen gets an erection during a medical examination, his doctor reacts with thinly concealed disgust.

My Friend Dahmer never makes excuses for the eponymous mass murderer, but its portrayal of the indifferent at best, hostile at worst environment of middle America that fostered Dahmer is subtly damning. Would a more caring society have sent Dahmer down a different path? Sadly, we'll never know.  

My Friend Dahmer is on Netflix UK/ROI now.