The debut feature from writer/director Deb Shoval, “AWOL” is an arresting love story between two women whose relationship is influenced as much by their environmental circumstances as it is by their sexuality. Lola Kirke plays the sly, charming Joey, who falls hard for local siren Rayna (Breeda Wool, also excellent in Lifetime’s “UnREAL”). Shoval, who co-wrote the script with novelist and writer Karolina Waclawiak, captures the blind recklessness of first love, in a lesbian love story that’s only partially about the characters’ queerness.
Rayna and Joey’s sexuality are enormous influences in their lives and the decisions they make, but it’s not the only thing that defines who they are as individuals. Joey’s a smirking tomboy, as talented with a car engine as she is with a guitar. She’s close with her mother and siblings, and happily looks toward her future, looking to the Army to lift her out of her small, economically depressed town.
Rayna, on the other hand, is mired in her own circumstances. Clearly the prettiest girl in her backwoods town, she’s a sexy wild child, with a mane of hair and T-shirt collection right out of a Bon Jovi video. Older than Joey, she’s closeted, and married with two small girls, dependent on her long-haul trucker husband, her Gram, and the government to get by. Leaving Pennsylvania just doesn’t seem within reach for her, nor does it seem like she’s ever even entertained the idea.
Still, when the women connect, over ice cream at the state fair, it’s like fireworks. Their relationship exists in bursts of hot, fiery passion and secretive trysts, and moments of cold distance when Rayna has to maintain her image. She’s constantly pushing Joey away and drawing her back in, and Joey drinks it right up, despite warnings from her family. But Joey’s protective nature and optimism about the relationship, coupled with Rayna’s mercurial manipulations, lead to disastrous choices.
The film takes place in Shoval’s hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and is ultimately a tribute to this place, at a very specific time, as much as it is a love story too. While Joey can’t wait to get out and see the world, Rayna’s never left, and its post-industrial, economically ravaged state affect the mobility and choices these women have. The sense of place radiates throughout the film, influencing the characters as much as any other element in the story.
Joey’s the more modern lesbian, out to her family, wanting and expecting a real relationship with Rayna, who maintains her heterosexual image for her own gain. But Joey’s also out of place with higher-class, higher-educated lesbians. Though she wants to leave, her town is the place that shaped her, made her into the person that she is. Shoval deftly captures these elements visually without the screenplay needing to spell it out.
Kirke, a chameleon, physically inhabits this role, expressing both the masculine and feminine sides of Joey. Wool is a bright flash of lightning on screen; she’s a flame drawing moths, wantonly sensual and sexually uninhibited. Her Rayna is incredibly seductive, a skill she’s clearly developed as a survival tool, and one that serves her well in her small world.
“AWOL” is a story about risk, what it means to invest one’s own trust and faith in another person, though it’s impossible to know if that will pay off or leave you in the dumps. It’s thematically rich, and confidently directed with a clear point of view, set against a backdrop of relevant socioeconomic and cultural issues. But it’s also a deeply relatable and affecting depiction of the heedless beauty of a first love. [B+]