MEGAN LEAVEY is so much more than a “girl and her dog” story, though it is very much that. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (BLACKFISH) has lensed a beautifully restrained portrait of wartime heroism from a female perspective. It’s a mixed breed of MAX and RETURN, but retains its own unique identity. Not only is it a loving tribute to our heroes that place themselves in danger for our safety, but it’s also a love letter to a typically unrecognized sect of heroes – K9’s and their handlers. You’ll leave the theater feeling emotionally charged, as only the best tales (tails?) can accomplish.
Twenty-year-old Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is adrift after losing her best friend Jessie. She’s not exactly a people person, so she has no other friends to help her grieve properly. She’s anxious, aimless and listless. Her home life is tumultuous with her divorced parents – unobservant Mom (Edie Falco) and emotionally stunted Dad (Bradley Whitford) – adding to her stress. Depressed and despondent, Megan enrolls in the U.S. Marines Corps – an act that ultimately saves her from crumbling further into despair. She learns about discipline and structure, but when she joins the K-9 division, she also learns about compassion. She’s assigned the most difficult dog at the facility, German Shepherd Rex (Varco). Though they experience some growing pains, it’s immediately noticeable they will help each other get through life. Mentored by Gunny Martin (Common) and Andrew Dean (Tom Felton), Megan and Rex learn to trust each other and form an indelible bond.
Screenwriters Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt turn the real life Leavey’s story into an incredibly moving, intense and poignant narrative. Despite some paint-by-numbers predictability inherent to biopics such as this, the filmmakers find moments that take us on an unexpected, heart-pounding journey that leaves us in puddles of tears. Cowperthwaite effectively captures the intensity and ferocity of the two-legged and four-legged Marines’ focused mindsets while out in the field, doing so without any phony artifice or pushy sentimentality. As the narrative unfurls, Rex oscillates between companion and warrior worker. He was one heroic doggo (to put in DogRates terms, “15/10 would pet,” at least when not on duty). Rex and Megan’s similarly drawn character arcs find connection and strength through non-verbal subtleties. While there are many scenes that needlessly lean on exposition, the filmmakers blessedly don’t over-explain the epically small moments. And the third act is sneakily emotional in its non-manipulative control of the situation. However, pacing is a bit problematic as it motors through a tad too fast.
Ramon Rodriguez, who plays Leavey’s human love interest/ fellow soldier Matt Morales, and Mara have great chemistry, and their flirtation is playfully sweet – but their romance is a smidge clunky in the conflict and resolve. Ultimately this story doesn’t hinge on it, but a more satisfying resolution between the pair would have been preferable. Camp Pendleton’s curmudgeon veterinarian Dr. Turbeville (Geraldine James) is painted in broad strokes and could be best likened to a domestic terrorist. She’s not really, but in terms of this story, she’s this piece’s villain – mean, compassionless and unyielding. She’s worse than the roadside insurgents Megan encounters overseas.
Since this is Cowperthwaite’s first narrative feature, I for one am excited to see where her strong voice takes her. There’s obvious room to grow as a storyteller from here on out.
MEGAN LEAVEY opens on June 9.