by Charles Green
This is a moving film about love and the sacrifices we make for those we care about. Written by Deb Shoval and Karolina Waclawiak, and directed by Deb Shoval, it’s an incredibly sad, but beautifully told story.
It follows two young women, Joey (Lola Kirke) and Rayna (Breeda Wool), living in a small town in Pennsylvania. Joey is considering joining the army to pay for college and get out for a better life. Her passionate relationship with Rayna is giving her second thoughts about her plans. Rayna, however, is married with kids, and no matter how much she loves Joey, can’t quite imagine leaving her husband and setting up a life with Joey.
It feels a bit like a lesbian Brokeback Mountain, and there’s the same sense that things won’t end well. Joey and Rayna have to pursue their affair in secret; they’re almost caught when Joey’s boss walks into his barn while they’re together. Joey’s sister and brother in law know about the relationship and don’t think highly of Rayna, calling her “trash” and “skanky”. Joey’s mother also doesn’t like her hanging around Rayna, although she has no idea exactly how close they really are. Much later, Rayna makes an important decision that Joey supports but that puts her military career and relationship with her family in jeopardy.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say the ending isn’t a happy one. But the film is wonderfully made, and it’s intensely compelling to watch. Music runs through it, playing in the background and with Joey playing her guitar and singing. Joey and Rayna have an incredibly physical relationship, with the camera pulling in on their intertwined bodies. And I never knew a gospel song could be so sexy. It’s easy to see why they can’t keep away from each other, even if it’s not particularly healthy.
The characters are deeply complex, making them fascinating to watch.. Rayna is a rebel and free spirit, always up for fun and good times. She tells Joey about the “Rainbow Gathering” she went to, admiring the women who were there. Yet she can’t seem to work up the courage to leave her crude, slightly dangerous seeming husband Roy (Bill Sage), who’s away from home a lot for work. She convinces Joey to join the army to have a better life, remarking that “I aam never leaving this town.” At the film’s end, she makes a heartbreaking choice that calls into question everything she felt for Joey.
Joey’s also a complicated character. She’s desperately in love with Rayna, willing to give up her pursuit of education and remain in the town. She signs up with the army at Rayna’s urging, then cries in private afterwards. She meets Hailey, an out, strong, college educated lesbian, who introduces her to new ideas. There’s potential between the two, but Joey clearly feels intimidated by Hailey. It’s even possible that part of why she stays with Rayna is because she can feel superior to her, the daughter of a meth addict and living in a trailer.
AWOL really hit home for me, with its look at star-crossed lovers and the challenges of sexuality and class. It’s a well done sad tale that’s sympathetic to its main characters, while still staying objective about the reality of their situation. It’s definitely worth seeing. Just be sure to bring plenty of tissues.
Charles Green is a freelance writer and editor based in Annapolis. His reviews appear in several publications, including Publishers Weekly and DC Metro Theater Arts.