Panic Fest 2024 Review: THE BUILDOUT, Beautiful Meditation on Grief and Friendship

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
Panic Fest 2024 Review: THE BUILDOUT, Beautiful Meditation on Grief and Friendship

Writer/director Zeshaan Younus' feature debut flirts with genre in the same way Tarkovsky and Malick flirt with genre. 

The film follows two friends as they venture into the mysterious remote area in a vast Southern California desert that a religious community has selected as their new home. There are significant pieces of The Buildout that are shot found-footage style, as the friends bring a camcorder along with them. But the film isn’t interested in classic sci-fi or horror thrills; its focus is the relationship between the two women, and how the loss of someone they both loved has changed that relationship.

Before introducing the pair, The Buildout opens with long, gorgeous shots of the desert, and two voiceover diary logs from community members. At first, it seems that the movie may play out entirely in these logs, building a mystery and climaxing in violence through first person narratives.

Instead, the logs only do some minimal worldbuilding. One member of the community, called “The Clergy,” speaks excitedly about their new home, calling it a “spiritual hotspot” and comparing the group to Jesus walking into the desert. Another, days later, vaguely speaks about things having gone wrong and discovering what this place really is.

Then these possibly divine, or supernatural, or extraterrestrial mysteries of The Clergy fall into the background. We meet Cameron (Terrifier’s Jenna Kanell) and Dylan (Hannah Alline) as they set out for a final dirt biking adventure in the desert together before Dylan leaves Cameron and her life behind to join The Clergy. The trip also serves as an unacknowledged memorial to Cameron’s sister Dakota (Danielle Evon Ploeger), who both women loved.

Dylan’s impending absence and the raw wounds of loss make for a somewhat chaotic trip, as the friends are affectionate, tease one another, and laugh together, but also air resentments and express festering anger with one another. Alline and Kanell have fantastic friend chemistry that makes these shifts between joy and anger believable and affecting.

Yet these bursts of emotion, and the realistically abrupt switches between adoration and frustration between the two friends, never take the film out of its almost trancelike state. The Buildout is full of stunning wide shots of the desert that give the entire movie an airy feeling, even when the friends are fighting, or something surprising happens.

Scenes of their dirt bike rides are less thrilling than they are grounding. Younus and cinematographer Justin Moore cut between images of speeding tires kicking up dirt and aerial shots of the bikes moving across the vast landscape, offering a sense of the perhaps ironic serenity thaat riding gives Cameron and Dylan.

These biking scenes also include shots from the GoPros the women wear, literally placing us in their perspectives, and playing into the film’s semi-found footage form. Cameron brought a camcorder with them to document the journey, and throughout the film we regularly see through its lens, but never for too long.

Multiple times it seems that a definitive switch has been made to entirely found footage, but then there’s a shot to the wide open desert, or crisper, more deliberately composed close ups of the protagonists’ faces. In a late scene, we see the body of the camcorder, sitting on the desert floor with its mini-screen flipped out on which we can see Dylan recording herself.

Like fellow Panic Fest film Worlds, The Buildout uses the trappings of genre films and the found footage medium to more abstractly consider how we live. Both films refuse to resolve any of the fantastical mysteries they set up, but succeed in posing questions that are more relevant to our everyday lives. The Buildout isn’t a found footage horror movie about a spooky mystery in the desert, it’s a meditative movie about friendship, grief, self-narratives, and the colliding of all three.

The film screened in-person during Panic Film Fest and continues to be available to be screened virtually until April 23. Visit the film's festival page for more information

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Hannah AllineJenna KanellPanic FestZeshaan Younus

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