“AWOL” chronicles a lesbian love affair with heavy odds stacked against it, including socioeconomic realities, an inconvenient husband and eventually military-service commitment. Expanding the premise of her same-titled 2010 short, Deb Shoval’s uneven first feature demonstrates greater assurance in conveying a sense of place (the filmmaker’s native northeastern Pennsylvania) than it does with narrative and character development. Nonetheless, this promising effort will be well-received on the gay fest circuit, leading toward decent niche home-format prospects and possible limited theatrical exposure.
Presence of leading player Lola Kirke — an unknown when this indie’s piecemeal shooting schedule started, a fast-rising veteran of projects with Noam Baumbach, David Fincher and Tom Cruise by the time it wrapped — will definitely boost visibility. Kirke plays Joanna, aka Joey, a recent high school grad uncertain of her future in a small Pennsylvania town where jobs, let alone career prospects, are few.
Her mother (Dale Soules) urges her to sign up for an Army stint, which would at least let her see the world a bit and provide eventual college funding, as well as utilize her natural mechanical aptitude. But Joey is semi-inclined to hang around, at least long enough to meet the baby that sister Kristin (Charlotte Maltby) is expecting, while playing a few more gigs with the folk-rock band she and stoner-ish brother-in-law Pete (Ted Welch) have assembled.
Meanwhile, she’s working for a dairy farmer scooping ice-cream at a county fair, in which capacity she first meets Rayna (Breeda Wool, who originated the role in 2010). Latter is a wild child possibly twice her age, with a penchant for drink and “tomboys.” After a first night’s drunken seduction, Joey wakens to discover Rayna isn’t exactly a full-time party animal: She’s got two young daughters, a frequently-absent trucker husband (Bill Sage as Roy), and a need to keep her same-sex adventures on the downlow.
Immediately somewhat improbably smitten, Joey begins campaigning for Rayna to leave this evidently unhappy marriage and (with her children) start anew. But her love object doesn’t find that scenario realistic. She encourages Joey to enlist, dangling the possibility that their future together might be more viable after she’s acquired benefits and marketable skills in the military. After a separation, however, impulsive Rayna is no longer willing to wait, forcing the titular action.
Shoval has said the germ of her story came from conversations with real-life lesbian soldiers who went AWOL. But that theme is utilized here only quite late, and without as much suspense as it merits. Instead, nearly all of the film’s focus is on the romance, which is both involving and lacking in rooting value.
While both lead characters are convincing in themselves, it’s hard to believe the seemingly level-headed Joey would go so far out on a limb for Rayna, who consistently shows every sign of confirming mutual acquaintances’ opinion that she is “trash.” Her intentions may (sometimes) be sincere, but too often her default responses are irrational, cowardly, and dishonest — one suspects Joey isn’t the first “tomboy” she’s seduced, then abandoned when real commitment is required. (We also gradually glean that Sage’s husband, who at first appears a threatening roughneck, may in fact be a weary veteran in the realm of forgiving and forgetting his wife’s humiliating infidelities.)
“AWOL” sketches these lives and their milieu with flavorful, confident familiarity. But Shoval and Karolina Waclawiak’s script is less graceful when it comes to providing psychological depth that might ballast the sometimes awkward narrative leaps. Though the story here is eventful enough, its telling lacks some needed urgency, in part because the central relationship is too obviously doomed.
Nevertheless, “AWOL” holds attention with its strong lead performances, nicely etched support turns, and nuanced portrait of a downwardly mobile “heartland” Caucasian America too seldom portrayed in movies given the large chunk of the populace it encompasses. Assembly is resourceful and thoughtful down the line, with particularly valuable contributions made by Gal Deren’s four-season photography of the surrounding countryside, and a soundtrack of diverse various-artist cuts.