The path to inner peace and self-redemption can lead to some strange places, and Zeshaan Younus’ debut feature full length film The Buildout asks us to come along for the ride as it explores some of the literal weird geography that path can go through.

            The Buildout is the story of Cameron and Dylan (portrayed by the woefully underrated Jenna Kannell and Hannah Alline respectively), two friends who are heading out into the Southern California desert for one last motocross trip before Dylan moves into a compound with a vaguely sinister New Age cult that Cameron isn’t a hundred percent thrilled on. However, even though Dylan believes this move will bring her a sense of closure after a personal tragedy in Cameron’s life that she was somewhat responsible for, it quickly becomes clear that something in the desert isn’t about to let the trip go smoothly and the duo are immersed in a quietly frightening tale of vaguely Lovecraftian high strangeness.

            For someone making a feature film for the first time, Younus’ does a spectacular job. The Buildout is a sleek and efficient story, clipping along steadily as the story unfolds. Shot in only seven days in the depths of Anzo-Borrego State Park in southern California, Younus’ deftly utilizes the natural setting almost as another character, using the vast expanse of the desert to highlight not just a sense of isolation for the two characters but also to highlight the ominous possibility of what might be out there watching them. Even in the films more tender moments (of which there are several) you can’t quite shake the feeling of weirdness the setting brings to this story. Coupled with a few cryptic references to something members of the cult found out in the desert, Younus successfully creates an atmosphere of otherness for the two protagonists. The horror of this film isn’t so much about actual visual scares but more about just a sense of wrongness throughout it. Coupled with the effective emotional investment with the characters, The Buildout relies more on the feeling that something terrible could happen at any second rather than actually ever seeing anything terrible happening. A film by a less adept director could come off as lazy or uninspired; in Younus’ case it’s a recipe for a genuinely unnerving film.

            What truly makes this film successful, however, is the performances of Kannell and Alline. The chemistry between the two of them is hard to pin down in what it resembles until it’s revealed what their relationship is: Cameron is the sister of Dylan’s late best friend. Seen through that lens every interaction between the two of them rings true. Cameron’s expressions of pride in Dylan getting clean and sober are sweetly awkward in a way that real life affirmations of that type often are. Meanwhile, Dylan’s affection for Cameron and her regret at causing her family so much pain is achingly authentic. The guilt in her voice when she speaks of Cameron’s sister is heart rending, again in a quietly awkward way such things tend to be. The two actors work together to create an anchor for the film to evoke a visceral response from the viewer as the film progresses and the horror of it is gradually ratcheted up.

            While undeniably a horror film, The Buildout also carries an unexpected emotional weight. Cameron and Dylan’s mutual desire for the other to find peace after what they’ve been through and the palpable love, they have for one another makes this film as poignant as it is unsettling, almost more so. It’s a beautiful film to look at and even more beautiful to consume, sticking in your head in the best possible way long after you’ve finished watching it.