MIFF 2017: My Friend Dahmer

Based on the graphic novel by John Backderf, who was friends with Jeffrey Dahmer in the late 1970s, My Friend Dahmer dramatises the notorious killer’s senior year in high school — when he was just a shy, if disturbed, kid.

Following events from the moment Backderf and his clique, hoping to have a few laughs at his expense, befriend Dahmer and encourage his offbeat behaviour, in some ways the film seems unsure of its own tone. There’s more than enough animal cruelty and psychosexual fantasy to satisfy the horror and serial killer buffs, but the flared costumes and colourful production design make That 70s Show seem subtle, and Anne Heche, playing Jeffrey’s mentally unstable mother, seems like something straight out of a Kristen Wiig sketch on SNL.

The decision to concentrate on Dahmer’s adolescence — when he is first exploring his cruel and unusual fascinations with death and anatomy, but before he commits his first murder — is a strange one. Portraying Dahmer as an awkward, somewhat socially frustrated teenager (expressed through Ross Lynch’s stooped, wooden performance), the film edges toward humanising a serial killer and offers up a number of factors that could have contributed to the monster Dahmer would eventually become: humiliating schoolyard hazing, family breakdown, a manic-depressive mother, alcoholism. But it seems less interested in any kind of in-depth character study and more taken by a prurient fascination with the disturbed childhood of a man who would admit to raping and killing 17 men and boys.

If Backderf — and, by extension, director Marc Meyers — weren’t trying to humanise Dahmer with an empathetic portrayal, the obvious question is: what’s the point of telling a story about Jeffrey Dahmer and concentrating on what is surely the least interesting part of his life?

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