“AWOL” is a stunning small town American love story

Damn, I really liked AWOL. Like a lot more than I was expecting to like a lesbian love story set in rural Pennsylvania. I guess I should’ve seen it coming given the success of writer-director Deb Shoval’s 2010 short of the same name but, still, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this film that screams realness, this despite its less than fairy tale happy ending.

AWOL sees recent high school grad and likely army recruit Joey (Lola Kirke) falling for a vivacious and slightly older woman at the local fair–Rayna (Breeda Wool). Somehow everyone in town knows about Rayna except for Joey. But judging by the amount of eye sex they have by the ice cream stand she’s operating, Joey’s too far gone to care.

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So when Rayna invites Joey to come over to a party at her place after her shift, she just can’t find it in herself to turn her down. She breaks out her guitar and what Rayna will later call her “voice of an angel” and in that moment, even though it’s obvious Rayna’s done this before, the strength of their attraction seems to catch them both off guard.

But the adorably shy one here is Joey, and Rayna quickly gets back to her forward ways. She lures Joey inside her trailer for some more drinking and almost immediately asks her, “You like me, huh?” It’s a good thing she said it, because our baby butch would not have made the first move. She’s a little thrown, but clearly not too much because in the next scene they’re shown making out on the floor. And while we’re not shown much (this time), those two definitely had sex.

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Talk about wakeup calls, though. When two little girls come rushing into the trailer in the morning, Joey realizes Rayna’s a mom. Rayna then proceeds to act like it’s no big deal and, to her credit, Joey plays along. But she’s also late for work and relieved to accept a ride from Rayna’s grandma. Looking conflicted, Rayna tells her, “Joey, this is just between us.”

Later at home, Joey’s sister and brother-in-law grill her about what she got up to last night. When she mentions Rayna, her sister is quick to call her “trash,” saying, “She’s one of those girls who will just keep having babies so she can get a fatter welfare check.” Well then, at least we know she’s cool with the gay thing…

More importantly, it turns out Rayna’s also married. Now that really should settle it, but Joey just can’t quit her. Rayna, probably due to having had a much rougher life than Joey, is more of a realist, though. She encourages Joey to go off to the army and make something of herself. When Joey rightly asks her why she can’t dream of something bigger for herself, she responds, “I am never leaving, but we’re gonna have a really good time before you get out of here.”

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True to her word, they do. And despite their circumstances, they’re incredibly cute together. In private, of course. But the growing feelings are starting to influence Joey. She’s now making excuses about getting more shifts at work, more gigs with her band and wanting to help her sister out with the new baby to avoid joining the army.

The work part, however, is no longer true after she sneaks into her boss’ barn to make love with Rayna. Yes, on the hay. It’s actually a very intense scene, but after Joey’s boss finds out what she got up to, she’s out a job.

Between that and her shying away from the army, it shouldn’t surprise her to find out her mom’s been talking about her not living up to her potential. But it does, and her response to that only makes sense when you consider her young age. She drops by Rayna’s place unannounced, professing her love and plans to take their little family to Vermont. It would’ve been a sweet scene, if not for Rayna’s husband creeping up behind her.

Fortunately, he didn’t hear anything. Quick on her feet, Rayna makes up a cover story about Joey coming over to pick up some babysitting money she’s owed. Poor Joey has to watch Rayna’s husband, Roy, be all over her as he gets the money out.

Afterward, at their local bar, Rayna tells Joey, “You’re not the only one that feels something.” But again, being a realist, she won’t leave her husband. The two women call it off.

Their time apart is good for one thing: it gives Joey a chance to think about her future. She does want to go to college, and she figures the army would be a good way to pay for it. She’s certainly made her mom happy.

But dammit if it doesn’t always come back to Rayna. Working another seasonal job at a pumpkin patch, Joey spots Rayna and her family, Roy included. She keeps her guard up at first, but when Rayna reminds her that “you like my kind of trouble”, they make plans to see each other later.

They spend the night camping (and have a really good time in their tent) and they’re just adorable together, but Rayna can’t shake that realist streak in her. In the morning, she drops Joey off at the army recruiting center, whispers, “Do this for us, Joey,” and proceeds to finger her in the parking lot. Talk about motivation!

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Well Joey does join the army and we even see her in training. She actually does seem to be enjoying herself. But just as quickly as she’s left, she’s back in town for Christmas. You can bet she almost immediately goes to see Rayna. As the movie goes on, there’s just this sense of their love being an impossible, and maybe even dangerous, one. If they don’t know better, we the audience certainly do, but I can’t help but think most of us are rooting for them.

And maybe they do have a chance. Life without Joey has caused Rayna to reflect on things. Joey makes her happy, and life in this small town is boring without her. Maybe if Joey can dream, she can dream too. Vermont suddenly doesn’t seem that far away.

But Joey’s come back different. She’s undoubtedly still in love with Rayna, but that need to rush things is no longer there. She also knows she’s made a commitment to the army that’s going to hold her back for at least a few years. There’s something else there, though, and Rayna knows it too.

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That leaves a lot of questions, doesn’t it? Is Joey going to abandon the army? Will Rayna actually leave her husband? And what kind of future could these two carve out together anyway?

Well even though this is a relatively short film at 85 minutes and this has sort of been a long review, I promise you there’s a lot more ahead for these two. But you’ll have to watch to find out exactly what.

Again, if you couldn’t tell, I really enjoyed this film. I enjoyed everything from the details in the setting to the women’s physical and emotional interactions. But most of all, as I think I made clear, I loved the dialogue. It’s so simple, but the combination of the words and the performances just grab you. My hopes are that you’ll get a chance (or allow yourself the chance) to see so for yourself.

AWOL plays at Frameline in San Francisco on June 22 and 25 and at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 9. Visit the movie’s Facebook page to keep up with future screening news.