Wildly inventive on a micro-budget scale, actor Bill Watterson’s shift to directing is an impressively crafted feature that’s full of frequent surprises. Assembling 30,000 square feet of cardboard to build full-scale sets for a fantastical maze clearly requires substantial commitment and creative vision, although the film’s determined quirkiness may mark it more for cult status than for widespread appeal.
An easily recognizable type, Dave (Nick Thune) is a would-be artist and chronic false-starter with a reputation for never completing anything he begins. So he decides to downsize his ambitions and build a fortress-like maze about the size of a large camping tent in his living room from sheets of cardboard, tape and glue. When his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns from an out-of-town trip, she finds the maze in an advanced state of construction, but no sign of Dave. His faint voice emerging from the structure informs her that it’s much larger inside than it seems at first glance. In fact, he’s been lost inside for three days, trapped by the complexity of his own creation. Dave resists Annie’s attempts to tear down the labyrinth, however, insisting that he has to complete work on the project or else he’ll be copping out, just like he usually does.
Annie convinces him that he’s going to need help finding his way out and calls on Dave’s crew of hipsters and misfits to form a rescue party. His half-hearted cynic best friend Gordon (Adam Busch) is more talk than action, poser couple Greg (Timothy Nordwind) and Brynn (Stephanie Allynne) are more interested in bragging rights than Dave’s welfare, and doc filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak), along with his crew of two, is determined to take everything about the situation way too seriously.
Annie leads the group into the labyrinth, disregarding Dave’s warnings about the booby traps he’s built, and as they plunge farther inside, the maze claims its first victim, guillotined by a cardboard blade. Then Greg gets impaled by a phalanx of spears and Brynn panics, disappearing deeper into the structure. Annie and the crew soon discover the reason for Dave’s traps: somehow he’s created an actual Minotaur (John Hennigan) that’s determined to hunt them all down. Suddenly they locate Dave, who’s still unable to find a route through his maze, but with the Minotaur in close pursuit, they’re going to need an exit strategy in very short order.
A throwback to PG-rated ‘80s adventure and fantasy films, Watterson’s playful feature is just about as DIY as it gets, suggesting that close teamwork was required between production designers John Sumner and Trisha Gum, working with a sizable crew, to craft the cardboard sets, handmade props and a variety of practical special effects sequences involving stop-action animation and puppetry.
Tongue-in-cheek visual references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other fanciful genre films demonstrate that Dave Made A Maze isn’t limited so much by resources or imagination as it is by a lack of narrative clarity regarding the supernatural aspects of the maze. The incongruous appearance of the Minotaur, the influence of an invisible evil force that seems to control the structure, and the labyrinth’s ability to expand of its own accord all remain unexplained throughout the brief 80-minute runtime.
These inconsistencies don’t seem to trouble the castmembers, who adequately navigate most of the frequently shifting plot points in Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears’s ambitious script with passably feigned seriousness, despite its sometimes surprising heights of absurdity.
Production company: Dave Made a Movie
Cast: Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, James Urbaniak, Adam Busch, Stephanie Allynne, Kirsten Vangsness, Scott Krinsky, Frank Caeti, Timothy Nordwind, John Hennigan, Scott Narver
Director: Bill Watterson
Screenwriters: Steven Sears, Bill Watterson
Producers: John Charles Meyer, John Chuldenko
Director of photography: Jon Boal
Production designers: John Sumner, Trisha Gum
Costume designer: Daniel Selon
Editor: David Egan
Music: Mondo Boys
Casting director:Lordan Napoli
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Features Competition)
Not rated, 80 minutes