Overview: A down-on-his-luck 30-something gets lost in a maze that he built in the living room in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Dave Made An LLC; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 80 minutes.

A CIFF Homecoming: Dave Made a Maze had the most packed attendance of any film I screened at Cleveland’s International Film Festival. I expected as much, given that I had read that the offbeat slacker comedy was made by locally grown filmmaker Bill Watterson, who was in attendance for the event. But if that geographical nepotism might account for the attendance, I have to concede that it does not go nearly as far in explaining that Dave Made a Maze also received the most joyful reaction from its audience of any film I attended at the festival. That distinction is earned by the film’s quality, boldness, and humor.

Dave Makes It Simple: The best summary of this film is already given by its title. There’s no other simple summation that could better capture the imaginative accomplishments of everything that comes after Dave (Nick Thune) makes his maze. It’s probably best I avoid detailed explanation of the events that unfold once Dave’s disappointed girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), his best friends Gordon (Adam Busch) and Leonard (Scott Krinsky), and a documentary filmmaking crew lead by Harry (James Urbaniak) (as well as a handful of other supplemental throwaways) venture into the maze to rescue him. But from one puzzling turn to the next, Watterson employs a dazzling exhibition of filmmaking inventiveness with stop motion cardboard artistry that would almost certainly gain a standing ovation from Michel Gondry, the closest mainstream comparison point I can find for the unbridled and passionate joy that clearly went into the making of this film.

Bill Deserves His Applause: There are some segments that outshine the rest. The giant giant, wax paper breathing face is peak live action animation and the return of Bryn (Stephanie Allyne) in the third act is as engaging and scary as any horror-peripheral scene you’re likely to ever see in a slacker comedy. There are certain segments which might miss the movie’s own standard mark of excellence (the crew’s sliding down a pipe from which they emerge as cardboard versions of themselves just doesn’t find the same magical air). The entire cast comes through on their performances (particularly Kumbhani, who has to carry a lot more weight than everyone else from start to finish), but some are really tested by the labyrinth’s sharper turns from comedy into emotion and vice versa. And maybe the spontaneous, more-dialogue driven wit of the film proves to be funnier than some of the more recurring jokes. But in the end, that all is a secondary concern. My screening was followed by a Q&A session with Watterson, and I was somewhat disheartened to realize that my next screening was immediately after the movie, and I had to leave behind at least a dozen questions I wanted to ask about his film’s production.

Overall: Ultimately, everything else takes a back seat to theater of it all. The micro-budget inspired innovation and Watterson’s own belief in movie magic makes Dave Made a Maze a hidden gem that deserves all of its praise and your viewership.

Grade: B-

Featured Image: Dave Made An LLC