TFF2017: My Friend Dahmer

Jack DeVillers (left) and Ross Lynch in My Friend Dahmer

Andrew Carrillo: Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The appearance of footsteps walking along the sidewalk opens the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. A single figure halts in front of a dead animal on the side of the road. Jeffrey Dahmer stares curiously, giving it a nudge, and picks it up, continuing on. Jeffrey’s face is blank as he finishes his walk home; there's a slight hunch in his posture that would become a signature for Dahmer. This story is told through complete imagery and to-the-point dialogue, making it fun for me, as a fan of comics and graphic novels, to dive into the life of Jeffrey Dahmer. Unsettling at times, Backderf's book gives the reader a real sense of what it was like to live in this time and how someone like Jeffrey Dahmer started on the path of his notorious future. Backderf even includes a few real photographs from Dahmer's school years, re-affirming the reality of what his life was like.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Justin Lockwood: I really loved the My Friend Dahmer movie. Seeing the high school years of Jeffrey Dahmer (Disney Channel alum Ross Lynch) is a great concept that plays out extremely well. The movie's a lot more subtle and understated than you might expect. There's very little overt violence or gore overall, and yet the film has a pervasive unsettling mood. The focus is all on character, as we get to know Dahmer—Lynch is pretty extraordinary—and his new gang of friends during his senior year. Dahmer's been a loner up to this point, partly because he's a budding gay kid but mostly because he'd rather collect road kill and dissolve it in acid in his laboratory shed than play team sports. But his habit of acting out "fits" in the high school hallways attracts the attention of a trio of guys, including Dahmer author-illustrator "Derf" Backderf (adorable Alex Wolff).

Lynch with Wolff

Andrew: Bringing the author/narrator to life, Wolff gives an incredible performance as Dahmer's once close friend--someone who realizes early on that something isn’t exactly right with Jeff. Alex’s performance is genuine and authentic. But most notable is how these two characters play off of each other.

Justin: The whole cast is terrific. I loved Dallas Roberts and especially Anne Heche as Jeff's parents. They both mean well, but they're too distracted by their bad marriage—mom Joyce has serious mental issues—to really understand the direction Jeff is headed in.

Andrew: Director and screenwriter Marc Meyers transferred the story to the big screen in perfect detail. Everything from the sets and costumes to casting was clearly thought out very particularly. Ross Lynch, taking a big step away from his Disney Channel background, brings Jeffrey Dahmer to life in a way that is very precise and also very chilling. It's no easy task taking on the life of a notorious serial killer, and Lynch knew he had to do extensive research on the part. During the film's premiere, when asked what he did to prepare for the role and what that process was like, he mentions the extensive videotapes of interviews he watched where Dahmer was very candid about why he killed all these young men. He studied him, and bringing that kind of work home was evidently difficult at times.

Justin: The production design and costuming were outstanding. We learned at the premiere screening that they actually filmed in Dahmer's house, and apart from that the '70s period details are totally spot on, and colorful and fun.

Andrew: "Dahmer was a twisted wretch whose depravity was almost beyond comprehension. Pity him, but don’t empathize with him." These words by author Derf Backderf stuck in the back of my mind throughout this story where I did start to feel for Jeff.

Justin: It really delved deep into Jeff’s troubled mind. It also managed to touch on gay identity and bullying in ways that are still extremely relevant in the present. The addition of a bullied, effeminate gay friend of Jeff’s named Oliver (Jack DeVillers) not only establishes Jeff as gay but demonstrates what could have been his fate in the social hierarchy if he didn’t fall in with Derf and the other guys who were essentially exploiting his weirdness. Interestingly, Backderf mentions in the graphic novel’s notes that many of his classmates were gay but not a single one was out circa 1978.

The care taken in telling this ghastly story does indeed make the viewer feel, if not pity, than definitely empathy for this haunted individual. My Friend Dahmer isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a rewarding and relevant one.

My Friend Dahmer screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit the festival's official site for details.