One of the more frustrating experiences in appraising art is arriving at the confusing intersection of admiring an artist’s work, while simultaneously not particularly enjoying it. It tends to leave would-be evaluators in the most uneasy of positions—rudderless in the river of measuring a piece’s worth. Is it their fault they couldn’t connect to it, despite recognizing the work’s laudable qualities? Or are their instincts correct, and the merits of the art are such that they’re merely impressive in blunt relief to its less-flattering attributes? Bill Watterson’s fiercely creative yet endlessly frustrating Dave Made a Maze leaves the viewer in precisely this uncomfortable position.
Following a charmingly craft-y opening title credits sequence, the audience is introduced to Dave (Nick Thune)—a young man puttering around his apartment, which is scattered with various art supplies and aborted projects. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives back home, she finds Dave has designed and constructed a cardboard maze in the center of their living room, but with no sign of Dave—until he explains, mysteriously, from inside the maze—that he’s lost. After Dave’s repeated warnings to not follow him inside, Annie and a handful of friends all decide to ignore him, including BFF Gordon (Adam Busch), documentary filmmaker Harry (the great James Urbaniak), his cameraman (Scott Krinsky) and boom mic operator (Frank Caeti). Like the mighty TARDIS, Dave’s maze is substantially larger on the inside. So large, in fact, the group fractures and immediately find they’re all lost, too. Despite the charming hand-made interiors of the maze, Dave apparently also saw fit to line the whole place with deadly traps, not to mention the papier-mâché version of the Minotaur of legend.
Purely as dazzling spectacle, there’s so much to praise in Dave Made a Maze. Art Director Jeff White deserves a medal (in lieu of an Oscar that won’t find its way to an indie film like this) for the inventiveness of the overall look and feel of the sets and set pieces. Although the camera remains stubbornly static and locked in medium shots much of the film, there’s rarely any want for something enjoyable to see; it’s almost a whole steampunk motif made entirely of cardboard and construction paper. String, glitter, aluminum scrap, and dozens of other parts scooped up from out of the craft bin, make for a singularly unique viewing experience. (Not to mention one unforgettable scene where our cast are transformed into strangely uncanny brown paper bag puppets.) From a visual perspective, it’s an easy, enthusiastic recommendation … as long as one isn’t terribly concerned by being engaged by its story.
On its surface, Dave manages to tick off most of the boxes an adventure in magical realism and homage a whimsical premise like it has should. There’s the theoretically lovable slacker lead, the devoted-but-frustrated girlfriend, the wacky best friend, the running meta commentary from the film crew inside the film, and so forth. Ultimately, though, that’s merely how they end up feeling—boxes ticked. Like the audience, the characters seem to be confused about how seriously they should be taking the stakes. Those traps Dave included? Yeah, they’re for real deadly. That origami Minotaur? Straight-up murderous. As the characters are messily picked off by whirling cardboard blades and hungry maze monsters (shown via an admittedly hilarious visual gag which I won’t spoil here), there remains a curious lack of urgency and overall narrative through line. Is Dave being forced to finally grow up as a result of his self-indulgent nature that caused the deaths of many? What does the maze itself represent—an innocently attained manifestation of his lack of commitment, or the darkest demons of his psyche? Are the survivors even at all angry with Dave for getting their friends killed-in-real-life?
Ambiguity and deliberately open interpretation can be great allies to a film, if it even only feels like there’s a thesis, or at least an opinion, of the filmmakers. The film, like Dave himself, seems to simply delight in the act of pure creation, without any conscious thought to its greater purpose. With dozens of little throwaway visual references to ’80s movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Goonies, Watterson and screenwriter Steven Sears wear their influences on their sleeves. But simply nodding to superior films and having a real panache for visual flair seem to be enough for them. That’s well and good, because it’s obvious that, at the very least, the production—building the sets (and tearing them down, for that matter), in particular—must have been an absolute blast. Whether or not that’s enough for the viewer? Well, sometimes it’s okay to defer to one’s instinct in the end.
Director: Bill Watterson
Writer: Steven Sears
Starring: Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak, Scott Krinsky, Frank Caeti
Release Date: August 18th, 2017 (Limited, VOD)
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.