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Sarah Ward

This first-time effort grapples with the inescapable influence of home as two women fall in love in a small town.

 AWOL directed by Deb Shoval. Image via BQFF.


Making her feature debut, writer/director Deb Shoval could’ve lifted AWOL from an ‘80s power ballad. Here, small town girls yearn for something other than their lonely world, but they’re defined by and tied to a particular place. It’s her 2010 short film of the same name that actually offers inspiration, and her own hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania that provides the location, with Shoval understanding what so many songs have captured: where you’re from isn’t something that you can ever completely shake. 

Indeed, AWOL possesses a permeating sense of its setting, and the way it stands in for thousands of other spots just like it. With her cinematographer Gal Deren, a fellow first-timer, Shoval doesn’t quite linger on the patches of dirt, nondescript streets or modest houses; however, she makes sure they’re evident in close to every shot. Place is important to her love story because, without it, her characters wouldn’t be who they are – and they wouldn’t be in the situation that they’re in. Two women falling in love can be complicated by many factors, such as job prospects and family circumstances; in AWOL, the struggles springing from both can be traced back to their shared township.

A year out of high school, Joey’s (Lola Kirke, TV’s Mozart in the Jungle) future can follow two routes: stay, continue to get by serving ice cream and selling pumpkins, and ostensibly finish her story there; or enlist in the army, put her mechanically focused mind to use and receive help with potentially attending college. Her mother (Dale Soules, Orange is the New Black) pushes for the latter, which Joey can see the sense in. Then she meets Rayna (Breeda Wool, UnREAL), who has opted for marriage to a trucker (Bill Sage, Hap and Leonard), raising two kids and scrounging for cash on the former path. Their attraction is instant, but the affair has to be kept a secret. It’s also another tie keeping Joey in town.

Conveying their passion through physicality more than words – while also demonstrating an astute awareness of when glances and gestures need to be reigned in – Kirke and Wool play their characters with the kind of weariness that can only arise from knowing the boundaries around them. It's always clear that Joey and Rayna are young and in love, but it's just as apparent that they're usually holding back. In tents and cars when no one is looking, their affection flows with ease; elsewhere, they adhere to and silently suffer within the roles their town has ascribed to them.

It's the intimate way that Shoval, Kirke and Wool make this chasm plain that helps AWOL to stand out, trading in emotional authenticity of both the amorous and location-based kind. The film rarely stresses their sexuality as a barrier, but makes plain the battle their romance unleashes in their respective quests to eschew their surroundings for a different life. Sometimes this results in obvious plotting by Shoval and her co-scribe Karolina Waclawiak, though any clichés are cast aside in the performances. To watch the central duo tussle so earnestly with their connection is to witness an affecting clash between yearning to escape your fate, and knowing that truly leaving something or somewhere behind isn’t easy.


Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5


Director: Deb Shoval

USA, 2016, 85 mins

Brisbane Queer Film Festival

March 10 – 19, 2017

Melbourne Queer Film Festival

March 16 – 27, 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay