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Adapting that story about that kid (a My Friend Dahmer movie review)

This weekend’s movie was a little different. One of my local theaters, Southside Works, screened My Friend Dahmer, a biopic about a young Jeffrey Dahmer‘s high school years as seen through the eyes of a friend who has no idea that Dahmer is going to grow up to be one of the country’s most notorious serial killers. What made this special was that the theater had John “Derf” Backderf, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, there for a signing and Q and A after the film. The event was co-sponsored by my local comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic. I guess they did a good job of promoting it, because the really nice thing about this was that the show was pretty packed. It’s kind of cool to be at an indy film where there’s more than just me and ten other people in the audience.

The film seemed surprisingly well received by the audience; while there was applause at the end because Derf was there, I don’t think it was just polite. People seemed to be into it. In particular, Ross Lynch does a great job as Jeffrey Dahmer. Not only does he look the part but he has an odd charisma that makes him seem… “off.” It would have been really easy to go over the line and play him as TOO creepy. He doesn’t. He comes across as that kid from school where you don’t necessarily think “ok, that kid is definitely a serial killer.” But when you do find out later that “oh yeah… he was a serial killer,” you sort of go “yeah, I can see that.” And I supposed that the’s point.

But the movie was not without its issues. Back when I reviewed Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and to an extent when I reviewed Hidden Figures, I talked about some of the problems inherent in adapting biographies for the screen. Movies are not books and movies are not real life. Books (be they text or graphic novels) can essentially be infinite in length. Furthermore, time is meaningless in a book. So long as you keep the reader engaged, the pacing is entirely variable. You can spend as much time in a moment as you want. One hour can pass in a sentence or one second can take pages. Films can’t really do this. Time progresses in real time and you need to make sure something is always happening. Furthermore, because we are trapped in a third person point of view, we are necessarily watching the actors perform rather than us being the characters. And since real life isn’t always interesting to watch… and takesu a lot of time to unfold, biopics often take artistic license in order to have a narrative that is always engaging. This is why Hidden Figures compressed a timeline of well over a decade into a few months. Similarly, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women invented conflicts and changed life details. This is the difference between documentary and biopic. In the biopic, telling an engaging story is more important than relaying a history.

My Friend Dahmer doesn’t really do that. The goal of the film seems solely to get you to peek inside the mind of Jeffrey Dahmer and try to maybe understand how (if not why) he became what he became. And that mind is fascinating. But there simply is no way to really become engaged in anyone else in the film. He is the focus of nearly every scene. Everything is from his point of view. There is the potential for subplots… but they aren’t really there. Even the character version of Derf, who obviously the author version should know pretty much everything about, seems underdeveloped compared to the character of Dahmer. There simply isn’t enough for him to do in the film. As a viewer I found myself wanting to see how life (both because of Dahmer and other forces) was affecting him. For instance, there is an attraction hinted at between him and a female student early in the film. They share enough scenes together for you to get the impression that maybe this has progressed and then, towards the end of the film, they go to prom together. But the thread is so tertiary that I don’t even know the girl’s name without looking it up. The same was true for every subplot. Dahmer’s parents have marital problems, largely due to his mother’s mental health issues. But we only know this through Dahmer’s experience of this. Similarly we can theorize that his father is under some amount of work stress. But we know very little about it. Neil, one of the other kids in Dahmer’s group of friends, appears to have some level of regret towards the way others treat him. But the film leaves this underdeveloped as well.

This is not to say that the actors do a bad job in their roles. They’re actually quite believable. But the director allows us one window into the world… the way Dahmer relates to it. This is actually something of a bold choice… the more obvious decision would have have been to show us the world relating to Dahmer. By flipping this, we are left feeling uneasy and put off. The single thing that makes Dahmer as a character special is that he is impossible to actually relate to, both as a viewer and certainly for the other characters in the film. And Lynch nails this, but it leaves the problem that, as an audience member, the anchor that you want to attach to… just isn’t there. You’re left drifting. If you can focus all of your attention on Dahmer, then this can be an interesting take. But if you find yourself being at all engaged by even the possibility of the subplots of the other characters, you’re out of luck. One of the most clear occurrences here, for me, was the aforementioned marital problems with the parents. We obviously see how their split affects Jeffrey Dahmer, but we are left with very little explanation of what his younger brother Dave thinks or feels. One might presume that things are even harder on him because he is younger and more impressionable. But maybe not. And the film simply doesn’t tell us — this is not Dave’s story. However, being able to contrast the effects on Dave with those on Jeff might have shown additional depth in the latter.

Interestingly, I did get some of these answers. What was great about the Q&A is that Derf does a great job of filling in those gaps when asked. The twenty minutes AFTER the film sort of make it “his story” in a way that the actual film misses. After all, the title is “My Friend Dahmer” and while Dahmer is obviously important, the “my” should be as well. This is a film worth seeing. But if you do, I highly recommend hunting down John Backderf and making him answer questions about it afterwards. This really improves the experience. That said, the writer of this review takes no responsibility and accepts no liability for any aftereffects that the reader may incur by forcing a stranger to talk about his personal relationship with a notorious a serial killer.

★★⅗☆☆+🤷‍♂️ (2.6 out of 5 stars plus one if you can force the author to do a Q&A with you afterwards)

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