It really is quite a shame just how detrimental a bad score can be to the overall effect of a film because aside from a few narrative redundancies, AWOL directed by Deb Shoval and based on her short of the same name is a searing, contemplative portrait of what it means to be young and in love with limited options at your disposal. It just so happens that the plucky score doesn’t match with the tone of the film, better suited for an independent slasher film than an ill fated romance and the resulting effect is a cheapended quality.
A shame, because there’s so much to celebrate in the film even if it runs longer than it needs to.
Lola Kirke is mesmerizing as Joey, a Pennsylvania native who scoops ice cream for a dairy farm during the day and plays in her brother-in-law’s band at night. Clever, confident and content with her place in life, she’s happy to stay in her small town, help her sister with her baby and figure out her next move later. Her mother believes she should have a brighter future though, and together they plan for Joey to enlist in the Army. However her plans are derailed when she meets Rayna (Breeda Wool). A free spirited woman, older than Joey, and a housewife with two young daughters and a neglectful husband who is absent due to his job for long stretches of time, their affair is ill suited from the start. Joey is out and content while Rayna keeps her sexuality a secret. Despite their differences, their affair blossoms as the two women fall for each other, but you never get the sense that Rayna’s relented any of the control as Joey tries to exit her orbit but is almost always, instantly, drawn back. Alluring and effortlessly exuding a confident appeal, Wool drawls out her words and imbues Rayna with impassioned stares so it’s not difficult to understand just how Joey would be ready leave everything for this woman who has so utterly captured her heart.
There’s a crushing need in a first love scenario to be everything that your partner is seeking. Especially true when you’re young, it’s an element that can be debilitating, pressure being put on in already stressful situations. This is clearly the case for Joey who isn’t experienced enough to see that despite Rayna’s genuine feelings for Joey, she’s never lost the mentality of always being the prettiest girl in the room and the manipulative nature she’s adopted to stay happy – or still be able to feign it at least.
It’s a testament to both Wool and Kirke that Rayna never seems less than a sympathetic character, and Joey never appears naive. They’re simply human, trying their very best to try to find warmth and happiness in someone’s embrace, no matter if it’s in a public space or in the attic of a dairy farm.
Where the film falters is in its pacing with a wonderful first act that introduces the characters and their dynamics with just enough time to flesh them out and engage the viewers enough to get caught up in the burgeoning romance between Joey and Rayna. However, the second act hits some awkward beats as it tries to drag out the ultimate catalyst that spurs the main bit of action, with repetitive shots of Joey wandering in the vast fields and arguments between the women that get so numerous that it’s surprising to realize we haven’t already heard one of them. It picks the pieces of the story back up by the third act, but by that point, the awkward score has kicked in and scenes that are supposed to be emotional become comical due to a poorly chosen score.
Regardless, this is a moving film with a tender story at it’\s heart about two women simply trying to be their best and happiest selves. It’s a love story at its purest, most stripped down sense; girl catches girl’s eye, the two being a smoldering affair, and before long, they’re the only people in the world they can envision spending their all too precious time with. But then, it’s also a coming of age tale, with Joey learning some hard-earned truths about the world and fantasy versus reality and which one typically is the victor.
With simply stunning visuals and a powerhouse performance by Kirke, AWOL isn’t likely to make any big screen impressions but will make its mark in the smaller market that it lands on. Make sure to seek this one out.