The title character of Dave Made a Maze is a guy who loves making things. He's also a guy who can't finish things. When the one project he finally manages to make progress on swallows him whole, his loved ones go on an adventure to try and pull him out.
I watched most of Dave Made a Maze today, which was the last shitty day of a long shitty week where I've been beset by problems that are beyond my individual power to solve. Interruptions and distractions felt impossible to wall off and my mood nudged me toward wanting to hate it, with the words "naive," "twee," and "self-indulgent" floating at the ready. But, despite all that, I found myself liking the movie.
Dave Made a Maze didn't magically improve my mood or anything transformative like that. The reason it won me over was because it's a loopy fable about reckoning with one's own inner processes, the impulses that spark and self-sabotage our hopes and dreams. The love and friction that comes from trying to make something that will grab people's attention, speak a little truth, or provide escape moves through every frame of the film.
In Dave Made a Maze, the titular character (Nick Thune) feverishly builds a cardboard labyrinth over a weekend and ventures inside, only to get lost inside its twists and turns. After girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a work trip, she learns that he can't get out. News of Dave's predicament spreads and soon his friends enter his bizarre creation to try and save him.
Directed by Bill Watterson, the movie invites you in with a loose, low-key sense of whimsy right from the very start, sort of feeling like a Goonies for grown-ups. As Dave's friends wander around the maze, they marvel at the craftsmanship and references that the construct holds. Synth pop bubbles up as the group passes the boxes from a barely used keyboard that line the entryway of a piano-themed hallway. However, these cute elements sit alongside more dangerous traps and mysteries, like a giant face that spits out shredded paper and origami penises.
And just when you think you're on the same sassy community-theatre wavelength as the film, Dave Made a Maze jolts you with sudden shocks and heavy existential ruminations. Or as Dave puts it about halfway through the movie, "It was just cardboard! No one was supposed to get hurt."
It's clear from the very beginning that Dave Made a Maze is supposed to be a metaphor for the highs and lows of the creative process. Watterson's film cycles through frustration, discovery, sharing, and paranoia during the course of its runtime. His friends' journey through the maze is a tour of Dave's neuroses, self-loathing and hard-won creative epiphanies.
This movie isn't heavy on star power. James Urbaniak slyly steals scenes as Harry, a gratingly delusional documentary filmmaker who keeps trying to stage the group odyssey for maximum pathos. There's a bizarre bit of world-collide casting that has pro wrestler John Hennigan stalking around shirtless as a silent, dirt-smudged minotaur. Dave Made a Maze employs a cascade of surprising special effect treatments to maintain the conceit that characters are moving through a multifaceted dreamscape. They turn into different shapes and mediums — puppets, origami, projections — each accompanied by a little tingle of wonder at the creators' ingenuity.
Ultimately, the thing that Dave made is a mess. And, though it took a piece of him with it — one that he doesn't miraculously grow back by the end of the movie — the maze lives on in odd, unexpected ways. Worst of all, though his creation finds an end, it's not because he finished it. It's not clear that Harry will wind up with a movie that he can screen at festivals, either. All Dave and his friends can do is clean up all the beautifully cut-up cardboard, look back at what happened with all its imperfections. Yet, this film's most glowing redeeming quality manifests as a rapturous flurry of aesthetics, which comes across as a celebration of craft for its own sake. "Look at what we can do, even though we're stalled, insecure, yearning human beings." Will Dave try again? Who knows? He may not wind up with a commercial hit, but it's so much better than giving up.
Dave Made a Maze is out in limited release and on digital services today.