“He was the loneliest kid I ever met…”
Reading about the horrific crimes Jeffrey Dahmer committed between 1978 and 1991 – the murder, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism of 17 men – it’s hard to imagine he was ever a kid, let alone human. It’s much easier to explain away his actions by envisioning him having always been some kind of full-grown monster – since forever – full of hate and anger and bloodlust, from day one.
But that wasn’t the case. In fact, by most accounts, Jeff had a fairly normal upbringing. Still, something clearly went wrong. My Friend Dahmer sets itself apart from the numerous other Dahmer docudramas by exploring the subject matter through the eyes of the people who may have known Dahmer more intimately than his own family – his classmates. The film is based on the synonymous graphic novel by Derf Backderf, and it’s a subject he knows all too well: in 1978, Backderf was a classmate – and brief friend – of Jeffrey Dahmer.
From the opening moments of the film, we know something is amiss with Jeff (as everyone calls him). During the morning bus ride to school, while the other kids chat and socialize, the lonely Dahmer (Ross Lynch) fixes his attention on a young jogger who plods along the roadside. As the bus passes the runner, Jeff – in a trance-like state – quickly stands and heads to the back of the bus to watch the runner disappear in the distance. It’s only after the bus driver shouts for Jeff to sit down – for the third time – that he’s snapped from his daze and returns to his seat. It’s the first time Jeff seems to realize something about himself – something strange – as if he could audibly hear the click happen inside.
Dahmer’s daily school life seems to continue in a similarly languid haze, one where he just sort of moves from hallway to classroom, dead-eyed and stoop-shouldered. What we learn through his daily interactions is that Dahmer is an anomaly. He’s introverted and unhip, but not a geek; he’s clearly intelligent, but not a brain. He gets picked on by the bullies, even though he himself avoids the nerdy kids. He’s entirely unclassifiable. He just seems to sort of exist. And the pain from this listlessness is evident in the sneer he wears on his face.
He’s only eventually noticed by Backderf (Alex Wolff) and crew when he inexplicably starts faking a seizure in the hallway of school; Backderf and his cronies refer to his spastic episode as “doing a Dahmer”, and they wonder aloud, “Is Dahmer funny?” They decide to sort of adopt him into their little group, making him a pet project of sorts – going so far as to start the “Jeff Dahmer Fan Club”. At one point, as a classmate of Backderf’s asks, “Is Dahmer your muse?”, to which Backderf responds with an uncertain “No”.
Despite his new social circle, Dahmer remains on the outskirts of fitting in. His constant battles with the inner demons which continually plague him – something he tries to subdue with copious amounts of alcohol – keep him from fully being accepted. Dahmer cannot excuse his continuing strangeness forever. The Jeff Dahmer Fan Club, realizing that maybe they’d taken on more than they’d bargained for with Jeff, awkwardly cut ties with him, paying him a few bucks to “do a Dahmer” at the nearby mall in one final pitiful performance. It’s here that Jeff demands to be called “Jeffrey”, signaling the death of the old Dahmer, and the emergence (and acceptance) of this alien being he was always destined to be. By the time he concludes his strange act at the mall – the thing that once earned him the only friends he ever had in high school, and was now his farewell to that same group – no one is proud of themselves.
The end of the film signals the end of their high school careers. After one last failed attempt at normalcy (Dahmer asks a girl to prom – and then promptly abandons her shortly after they arrive), everyone goes their separate ways. Backderf is set to move to New York for college, but Jeffrey has no plans. He spends his first week of freedom in the abandoned house his family vacated after his parents divorced. And it’s this first week that Dahmer commits his first murder.
And that’s My Friend Dahmer – a straight-forward, no-frills look at what one of America’s most notorious serial killers was like in high school. There’s a particularly depressing scene early on, an incredibly brief and subtle thing that really spells out just how hopeless Dahmer’s case is: Jeffrey, pressured by a teacher for an answer he doesn’t know, responds frustratedly in his affected bwaa voice, causing the classroom to erupt with laughter. For a brief moment, there is a restrained joy on Jeff’s face; for probably the first time ever, he was paid attention to by his schoolmates. Not just attention, but positive attention. His smirk quickly fades, however, as his eyes start to dart back and forth; he’s having an internal realization, accepting the impossibility of ever maintaining this type of warmth and popularity among his peers.
It’s a brutal watch for those of us who remember high school. Those of us who were picked on, those of us who did the picking, and those of us who just stood by and watched. High school is a whirlwind of highs and lows, surging hormones and brain chemicals, and existential uncertainty. It’s not a kind place. It’s a jungle. And though he was briefly taken in by a few schoolmates, Jeffrey Dahmer realized quickly he was a novelty to them, and that he would never truly be accepted. Now imagine dealing with all of that while trying to smother your burgeoning homicidal feelings. The film doesn’t necessarily humanize Dahmer, but it doesn’t dehumanize him, either. By the end, you’ll ask yourself an impossible and scary question: did we fail Dahmer?
Backderf says in his novel My Friend Dahmer, “He was the loneliest kid I ever met.” Perhaps the most tragic part of Dahmer’s tale is not the fact that we’ll never know why he did what he did, but that we’ll never know if it could’ve been prevented.