'AWOL': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A sensitive but unmelodramatic look at problematic first love.

Lola Kirke plays a teen in love with a married woman.

A lesbian teen learns hard-won life lessons in AWOL, Deb Shoval's expansion of her 2010 short of the same name. Coming off a breakthrough alongside Greta Gerwig in last year's Mistress America, Lola Kirke stands in no one's shadow here, delivering a quietly winning performance that would ensure viewer identification even if her character's challenging first-love plight weren't so universal. Art houses should welcome the film, which will play especially well to lesbian auds without alienating others.

Kirke plays Joey, a recent high school grad who'll have a hard time paying for college unless she enlists in the Army. While mulling that commitment, she meets Rayna (Breeda Wool), a good-timing blonde who doesn't reveal she's the mother of two, or married, until her young daughters show up the morning after the women first sleep together. Sending her on her way, Rayna tells Joey that what they've done is "just between us — you know that, right?"

Joey's family knows all about Rayna — her sister calls her "trash," and whenever Joey makes a questionable choice, she gets asked, "Did Rayna put you up to this?" But Joey is smitten, sharing secret camping trips with the older woman; soon she's pressing Rayna to leave her husband Roy (Bill Sage) and head off to some other town. When she does enlist in the Army it's at Rayna's suggestion, so the youngster can make enough money to support her and the children.

Kirke is both self-possessed and vulnerable in the role, making this aspiring truck mechanic not quite a tomboy but willful enough to ignore the many "she's no good for you" warnings littered throughout Shoval and Karolina Waclawiak's screenplay. Appropriately, Wool presents as a femme fatale at one moment and a trapped lover the next, leaving viewers to wonder whether Rayna's feelings for Joey are as deep as she says, or if she's simply covering her bases in case her husband's work as a trucker dries up. While we wait to find out, Joey suffers through a few encounters in which Roy seems just a step away from guessing what's happening behind his back.

As the title suggests, Joey's enlistment doesn't go quite as planned. While the film moves toward a resolution that is guaranteed to break somebody's heart, Shoval displays an eye for the momentum that carries the worst-laid plans forward in the heat of the moment. Cinematographer Gal Deren's lensing of Rust Belt locations finds a place both lovely to linger in and worth leaving, matching the bittersweet sound of the folky songs Kirke sings while the two characters are alone.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Production company: Race Point Films
Cast: Lola Kirke, Breeda Wool, Dale Soules, Ted Welch, Bill Sage, Britne Oldford, Libby George, Charlotte Maltby, Sadie Butler, Hannah Dillon
: Deb Shoval
Screenwriters: Deb Shoval, Karolina Waclawiak
Producers: L.A. Teodosio, Jessica Caldwell, Michel Merkt
Executive producer: Jim Lande
Director of photography: Gal Deren
Production designers: Hannah Alpert, Bridget Rafferty
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Jeffrey Wolf
Composer: Gingger Shankar
Casting director: Adrienne Stern
Sales: Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners

Not rated, 81 minutes