If there was one word that could accurately describe all the different aspects of Dave Made a Maze, that word would be “creative.” Far too many films lack originality, instead choosing to churn out tried-and-tested formulas that typically do well at the box office, so it’s truly refreshing to come across a directorial debut that is so boldly imaginative. Admittedly, some of the creative decisions would be all the more intriguing had the film included any sort of explanation of events, but perhaps the residual confusion is part of the charm. This low-budget slacker comedy may not be perfect, but it certainly attempts something different, making it undeniably entertaining.
The title itself provides a pretty solid summary of the film’s premise — Dave did, in fact, make a maze (although technically it is a labyrinth, but that’s splitting hairs). When he gets lost within his own creation — a deliberately poetic plot device — his girlfriend Annie decides to rescue him, with the help of a few friends. More intriguing than the details of the plot, though, are the intricacies of the maze itself. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner have clearly invested a great amount of time and dedication toward bringing 30,000 square feet of cardboard to life, consistently keeping viewers eager to see what unique creations lie around each corner. However, not all of these creations are pleasant for the crew that goes in after Dave, with various deadly booby traps and even a minotaur haunting the maze. Combined with all manner of visual effects from stop motion to puppetry, and optical illusions to animation, the maze’s surprises are perhaps the most enjoyable — and memorable — part of this film.
The script, written by Steven Sears and director Bill Watterson, fits well in today’s world, where more than a few viewers will be able to recognize Dave’s situation in life. An eternal false starter, Dave is an artistic soul who has never managed to complete anything and is stuck in a cycle of failure. The character is really brought to life by Nick Thune (“Urge”), who manages to completely change our opinion of Dave within the short runtime of 80 minutes. However, the performance that really steals the show in this film is given by Meera Rohit Kumbhani (“Weird Loners” TV series) as Annie — by far the most demanding role with its near-constant screen time and frequent shifts in tone, Kumbhani handles each scene with ease and creates a strong female lead by doing so. Many of the other characters, such as Dave’s sardonic friend Gordon (Adam Busch, “Internet Famous”), are somewhat underwritten, giving us a sense of incompletion, but this is arguably a deliberate decision taken to keep the focus on the maze itself.
Adding to the sense of chaos and quirkiness that pervades Dave Made a Maze is a subplot in which filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak, “The Occupants”) and his crew of two join the rescue party in hopes of capturing great footage for a documentary about the maze. Some of the best additions to the film come from Harry’s involvement, and the ability to juxtapose how ridiculously absurd the situation is with Harry’s straight-faced intensity makes the film feel incredibly self-aware. His comments from the sidelines — instructing people on when to hug and how to show emotion — are simultaneously mocking of documentaries that obsess over forced sentiments and a signifier of how strangely the film’s characters take the unfolding events in their stride. What we are left with is a sense of bewilderment, yet it’s one that is somehow enjoyable.
Dave Made a Maze is not trying to be a box office hit in the slightest — it’s far too deliberately bizarre for that. With a little more narrative clarity, it could have even been a cult hit, enthralling audiences with its eccentric imagination. As it stands, the film is a ride at a theme park — thoroughly captivating and enjoyable in the moment, but once it is over it has all but disappeared, making it difficult to hold onto the childlike joy and wonder.