As a teenager in 1970s Ohio, future cartoonist John Backderf struck up a friendship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Their time together inspired Backderf’s autobiographical 2012 graphic novel My Friend Dahmer. The new film adaptation is leering, tawdry and tasteless, sins only exacerbated by the fact that the film thinks it’s being quiet and clever.
Front and centre among the film’s many problems is the stunt casting of Disney Channel star Ross Lynch in the title role. Lynch is not untalented as an actor, with good work surely in his future. But a role as a famous serial killer is an invitation to overact that he lacks the wisdom to decline. From his over-emphasized poor posture to the affected Midwestern accent, he can’t resist the opportunity to continually remind the audience how hard he’s acting.
But director Marc Meyers’ choice to build his film around the miscast Lynch is an illustration of My Friend Dahmer’s many creative missteps. Dahmer is the kind of role that 10 or 15 years ago would have gone to a lesser-known indie player, but Meyers can’t turn down the salacious opportunity to use the wholesome star of Austin & Ally. It’s a tiresome instinct that pervades every aspect of the film, which always goes for the sensational and the obvious.
There’s a moment in the 2016 miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson in which David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian tells Cuba Gooding Jr.’s suicidal Simpson, “Please, this is where my daughter sleeps. Do not kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom.” It’s the kind of false moment that’s endemic to biopics and historical films.
There’s no reason for the characters to speak this way, but it allows the movie to wink at the audience: they know something the characters don’t. My Friend Dahmer is like one of those bad moments stretched out to feature length.
When Dahmer meets Vice President Mondale on a school trip, for instance, the camera lingers on their handshake as Mondale tells him he “ought to pursue” his interest in biology.
But those moments are made worse by the film’s seeming lack of curiosity about Dahmer, his family or anything else.
When the film begins, Dahmer leers out the window at some roadkill and at a muscular jogger. He later collects the roadkill in a garbage bag and spies on the jogger. When and why did a seemingly normal teenage kid begin collecting dead animals and spying on solitary men? The film doesn’t care. Instead, in its earliest scenes, Dahmer already inexplicably has a shed full of dead animals, preserved in jars.
It’s for these reasons that My Friend Dahmer fails to become anything more than a superficial exercise in attempted edginess, and why it never actually achieves any of that edge.
The whole thing reads like a bad prequel to the eventual Jeffrey Dahmer story. We see how Dahmer got his eventual murder weapons, but not how a boy became a murderer. It’s the shallowest possible treatment of what could’ve been profound subject matter.
Published in Volume 72, Number 16 of The Uniter (February 1, 2018)