“You don’t really connect with people very well.” That’s what people tell Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), the title character of a new film from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Luckily she does bond with dogs and that gift saves not only her life but also the lives of many others.
When we first meet Leavey she is a withdrawn young woman, aimless, grieving the loss of her best friend. Living in Valley Cottage, New York with her divorced mother (Edie Falco) and the man who broke up her parent’s marriage, she looks to extricate herself from the drudgery of dead end jobs by enlisting in the Marines. When asked why she signed up she replies, bluntly, “To get the BLEEP away from my life.”
She finds her calling after an embarrassing incident. Caught urinating in public after a night of drinking she is assigned the worst job on base, cleaning out the dog kennels of the K9 bomb-sniffing unit. There she meets Rex (Varco), a violent and aggressive military working dog so powerful he shattered the hand of his former handler with one bite.
With the guidance of the gruff Gunnery Sergeant Massey (Common) and dog trainer Andrew Dean (Tom Felton), Leavey and Rex become devoted to one another and the job. “People count on us and if we do it wrong people die,” she says, “so we gotta do it right.” Spread out over more than 100 missions their teamwork saves thousands of lives but on the second of two deployments in Iraq an Improvised Explosive Device wounds both. Leavey finds the return to civilian life difficult, doubly so when Rex is declared unadoptable. “I’m just trying to give a war hero a home for the last few years of his life,” she says.
Based-on-a-real-life story “Megan Leavey” is a by-the-book but effective bit of storytelling. Guaranteed to tug at animal lover’s heartstrings it’s a love story between woman and dog. “I’d thank him for trying to teach me what love is.” It’s also a tribute to the largely ignored but long, honourable role of dogs in the military.
Cowperthwaite stages several tense bomb sniffing scenes and the troubled family sequences work well but the film is at its best when it explores the loving connection Leavey has with Rex. It’s “Benji” with bombs or “Lieutenant Lassie,” a movie that hinges on the audience buying into the camaraderie between dog and trainer.
Mara is a mix of vulnerability and steel will, a woman who finds meaning in the military and her relationship with Rex, only to see it all jeopardized following her injury.
“Megan Leavey” is a compassionate film that may be a bit too straightforward in its telling but nonetheless is a powerful example of the power of companionship—whether between people or people and animals—to heal the human heart.