A Tale of Two Movies

By Nicole De Meneses

The journey of how the short film AWOL became a feature film was a long and strenuous one. Loyalties and personal fortitude were tested; relatively unknown actresses emerged as burgeoning stars, and in the end perseverance and the desire to tell a timely story about first love and hard choices won the day. The small town drama of a young girl, Joey played charmingly by Lola Kirke who falls in love with a married woman, Rayne, played with an infectious intensity by Breeda Wool, is compelling and heartbreaking. The presentation of their complicated relationship, is shown  as being riddled with a revolving door of obstacles and loved ones that want to stand in their way. With jobs being few and far between in the area Joey dreams of providing another life for Rayna and her two children. She thinks by enlisting in the Army that she will have an opportunity to change her stifling circumstances.

Deb Shoval didn’t always have inspirations to be a filmmaker. One of her earlier focuses in college was in sustainable agriculture. She was apart of a traveling political theatre group that performed as a collective. They tackled environmental issues in their performances as well as controversial topics like genetic engineering. The collaborative environment inevitably sparked her desire to want to create and challenge herself to take a more leadership role in working with actors and led her on a creative path of directing plays and films.

Filmmaker Maria Govan saw one of Shoval’s plays and the two became fast friends and started collaborating on a screenplay together. Shoval saw the value of being able to share her voice through her writing and how that would allow her personal views to be received by a larger audience. She found by using narrative storytelling to talk about her political views in a non-overt manner it made the material more accessible and honest.  She greatly valued authenticity and character development when shaping and creating stories.

In one very snowy January weekend in Pennsylvania, without big intentions. AWOL, the lesbian military drama short film was shot over the course of three days. Mixing non-actors with classically trained ones resulted in making big waves when the short splashed on the Sundance scene in 2011.  Fascinated by what motivates a young person to enlist after the years that followed 9/11, Shoval chose to expand the short into a feature to provide answers to some of the unanswered questions that the short film had posed. How did these characters meet? Why would Joey join the Army?

Shoval wondered if it was a matter of limited options and poor social economic circumstances that drove particularly young people to follow the call to serve putting them in harm’s way at risk for having to make the ultimate sacrifice. That theme is explored beautifully in the feature film AWOL and it’s that conflict that makes AWOL stand out from other Lesbian romantic movies. The stakes are higher and the characters while flawed feel very much like a neighbor or childhood friend. This makes viewers emotionally invested in the impulsive and sometimes destructive choices that the two women make throughout the course of the film.

Fast forward four years from short film to feature film, from unknown actresses to leading ladies:Lola Kirke has starred in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, David Fincher’s Gone Girl and landed a lead role in the award winning Amazon Series Mozart in the Jungle and currently can be seen in Doug Liman’s American Made. Shoval admitted that over the course of the four years that it took to complete the shooting of AWOL she was worried that Kirke would have to leave the project for other more lucrative productions. Kirke stayed true to her commitment and they were able to continue to film and do reshoots around her schedule. Breeda Wool was also making successful strides in TV appearing in the popular TV series UnReal. After receiving grants and taking out loans and running a successful Indiegogo campaign. In 2016 AWOL was ready to be shared with audiences. Some of the supportive grants given to help complete the film were from Women in Film, Frameline and The Tribeca Film institute. Their support was instrumental in the films completion.

Deb Shoval is currently keeping busy on an exciting new top-secret project. Shoval has proven herself to be a thought provoking director with a unique point of view. Audiences can look forward to her bringing that unique voice to whatever she creates next.

AWOL is currently available to view on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Netflix.