Few films can get away with creating entire sets, villains, plot beats, and characters out of cardboard. Then again, few films in recent years have conjured the playful, metaphysical spirit that infuses Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze. This purely independent and fully realized vision was one of the greatest joys of this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival lineup.

While his girlfriend Annie is away on a business trip, unsuccessful artist Dave decides—as the title suggests—to make a maze. But he goes too far and gets lost in his creation. Upon returning home, Annie finds the maze in her living room, much smaller than Dave’s echoing voice suggests. She enlists the help of Dave’s filmmaker friends to help him escape, but when they enter the maze, they find it to be huge—and haunted by a Minotaur that seeks to destroy them before they can escape.

Starting with quirky introductions to our central cast, the film brings us into a light-hearted but frustrated world full of miscommunication and absurdist obstacles. Annie wants to destroy Dave’s maze and solve the problem easily, but Dave won’t let her; he can’t let go of his creation. Both characters are played wonderfully by Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Nick Thune, respectively. The supporting cast, complete with weird best friends and pretentious documentary directors, rounds out the comedic world. Even with their oddities, the cast is endearing, and we care about their fates when things start getting… dark.

This film is endlessly inventive in both production design and plot movements. The maze itself is every art director’s dream, a cardboard construction that is far more intricate than one would expect. Each separate area also features color schemes and shapes that speak to Dave’s psyche (a massive keyboard, a paper-breathing totem, and a glowing felt vagina are some prime examples). Its infinite size and the threat of the minotaur remind one of Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves, while the maze’s inner workings are beautifully rendered by a multitude of mediums, ranging from stop motion to paper-bag puppetry. The images are full of obvious metaphors—the labyrinth of a person’s mind, self destruction, et cetera—but they are willing to be simply fun as well, never too serious or weighty.

The world feels at once childlike and surprisingly dark—the tonal shifts don’t always work, but for the most part they create a world of wide-ranging and effective emotion as well as imagery. Embarking into the maze, we indulge in youthful whim, but the consequences are real: people die in booby traps from the outset, notifying us of the real dangers. Dave’s dilemma, trying to save the thing that is killing him, is a clear metaphor for that good old artistic struggle, while Annie’s clear moral focus makes her a strong hero. Together, they navigate a wonderfully traditional story structure in hopes of escaping the maze alive.

For the design alone, Dave Made a Maze is worth watching, but a surprisingly touching story and strong character arcs also await audiences. This film is full of independent spirit, but also a willingness to give into the playful spirit that many indies lack in their search of “meaning.” It’s an old-fashioned adventure tale, a marvel of DIY design, and a tidy metaphor for the artistic process. Films like this don’t come along often.

Movie Score: 4/5