All images courtesy of Bleecker Street
Any film that revolves around the relationship between a dog and its owner is automatically going to earn major points because 1.) Dogs are awesome and 2.) the movie will most likely involve a heartfelt moment where the dog’s life is in danger, therefore, making you get all up in your feelings to the point of ugly crying. There’s something about dog movies that is so inherently heartfelt that you have no choice but to like it. It’s almost unfair. MEGAN LEAVEY keeps this tradition going, bringing out the subtle earnestness of a relationship between a dog and its owner set to the backdrop the Iraqi war.
Based on the true story, Kate Mara plays the titular Megan Leavey, a 21-year-old who feels stuck in life while living in upstate New York. She’s unhappy, bitter, and feels like she has no purpose — until she passes a Marine recruitment center. She enlists in the Marines and after boot camp, she attends military police school at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. After a night of boozing and other rule-breaking shenanigans (she gets caught drunkenly peeing outside of a building on base), she is tasked with cleaning the kennels for the K9 unit. While there, she gets fascinated with the working dogs that are trained to sniff out explosives in war zones. As a result, she badgers Sergeant Gunny Martin (Common) stops at nothing to become part of the K9 division. After jumping through some hoops, she becomes part of the division and ends up with a very unruly and ill-tempered German Shepherd named Rex. True to Odd Couple form, they don’t hit it off in the beginning. In fact, it seems like he kind of hates her. But the more time they spend together, the deeper the bond becomes.
All comes to a head when the two of them are deployed to Iraq. She befriends a fellow dog handler Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez) and he shows her the ins and outs of the war zone. During one mission, a land mine is detonated during battle and ends up injuring Megan and Rex. Megan is forced to seek medical treatment and is separated from Rex, who also is sent to get treated for his injuries. After recovering, Megan earns a Purple Heart and becomes a civilian and is looking forward to being reunited with Rex and adopt him. Unfortunately, he is deemed as “unadoptable” because of his combat-induced trauma. She becomes determined to adopt Rex and begins a campaign that ends up making headlines all around the country.
Megan Leavey could have easily been a cloying film, exploiting a relationship between two war heroes. Despite its occasional melodrama and disposable tertiary characters, the film is an emotional surprise, serving up a brave and touching story about a woman and her dog that doesn’t seem like a made-for-TV sob pic.
There’s a lingering feeling of “When is the dog going to die so I can bawl my eyes out?” while watching a film like this. More often than not, the lovable canine dies a sad death and we are forced to watch it and have our heart ripped out as we wade in a puddle of tears and reflect our life choices. In other words, me every time I catch Marley and Me on cable. With Megan Leavey, its less about that (SPOILER ALERT: the dog doesn’t die in the movie) and more about exploring the relationship between two war heroes and their unbreakable bond.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes the script written by Pamela Gray and Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt and takes gentle care with it, giving it the life and dimension it needs to tell such a remarkable story without making it seem injected with saccharine and schmaltz. Mara, who still hasn’t quite found a solid footing as to her role in Hollywood, is a pleasant surprise as the directionless, yet determined Megan. There’s a soft severity to the actress that plays well with the character and with her canine co-star. The parallel between the two characters as misfits that no one seems to want may be a little too on the nose, but it manages to work. She pays respect to the story well and she seems to let it lead her rather than the other way around.
The strength of the movie is obviously with Megan and Rex, which makes the other outlying characters seem like afterthoughts. There is an abundance of talent in the film which isn’t necessarily wasted, but they didn’t provide anything memorable either. Edie Falco steps in as Megan’s flaky mother while Bradley Whitford plays her father. There’s really nothing there to grasp on to. Same could be said for Rodriguez as her very one-dimensional love interest, Common as her gruff mentor, and Hogwarts alum Tom Felton — whose American accent is very American.
There are plenty of things predictable and boilerplate about Megan Leavey, but what it lacks for in cinematic prestige it makes up for in heartfelt storytelling. Cowperthwaite finesses Leavey’s real-life story without making it outlandishly Hollywood while Mara leads the charge with grace and honor. In the end, it’s an emotional war story about an awesome dog and his owner. And if you aren’t touched by that, then you need to check your cold, black heart.
Running time: 116 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic