“I pour, you drink,” Rayna (Breeda Wool) says to Joey (Lola Kirke), only a few moments after crawling through the window of Joey’s ice cream stand at the county fair, essentially dictating the terms of their relationship that follows. A married mother of two, she’s a little less responsible than the recent high school grad she’s seducing, but a full of a lot more swagger, qualities that are obviously far more intoxicating to Joey than the alcohol being served. The same quality applies to Deb Shoval’s debut feature as a whole, putting a hook in early – the fact that Joey and Rayna meet just after the former has signed up to join the Army, aiming to escape small-town Pennsylvania – and reeling the audience in with two fierce performances from Wool and Kirke as Joey grapples with whether she and Rayna could forge a life together.
So well-cast the film had to stop filming in 2012 to accommodate bigger productions its rising stars would appear in before resuming in 2015, there are some mild technical inconsistencies – the crispness of the picture fluctuates ever so often and the actresses look a shade different – but it’s smoothed out by how strong the chemistry between Kirke and Wool is, a relationship that’s allowed to blossom without anything weighing it down, given how Shoval and crew so thoroughly give a sense of place. Beyond the film’s opening frames which show a town on its last legs, there’s the ever-present sense that despite the vast blue skies above and open pastures that are just off the highway, one can never leave, with a vicious cycle of family ties, $7.25/an hour jobs and the crippling uncertainty of what exists outside of city limits taking hold. While Rayna’s admission that a Bon Jovi concert in Jersey was her lone trip crossing state lines should raise red flags with Joey, who’s served enough Arctic Swirls and banana splits to know she can’t continue to linger, it is how you feel in the company of the two that makes it obvious there’s no place they’d be more content than with each other.
The fact that Rayna and Joey are gay isn’t the primary (or even secondary) impediment to their happiness is treated so casually it wouldn’t seem to be worth mentioning, yet it adds a progressive new wrinkle to the proceedings that separates it from other seemingly doomed romances. When each manufacture reasons why they can’t be with each other, the calculations are far more complex, the combination of a deft script from Shoval and Karolina Waclawiak and the lead actresses’ ability to express themselves so purely making the complicated emotions behind each decision cutting through like a knife. In general, the film is about as mercenary as Rayna when it comes to dealing with anything that doesn’t feel necessary and true and though that actually leaves a few scenes that might be better if they were able to breathe more, the tension just keeps building.
As unclear as their future is when Joey is beckoned to Texas to fix tanks before being deployed to Afghanistan, the characters are so clearly defined, their words laced with how they were raised – in Joey’s case, a belief in God’s will, while Rayna knows only the cruel hand of fate, leading her to control it in any way she can – that “AWOL” could have been an effective drama set anywhere, but feels all the richer for being in a place Shoval knows so well. It’s a muscular debut, modest in the scale of its storytelling, but not in the empathy it inspires and though it may have taken years to complete, “AWOL” was well worth the wait.