Near the beginning of Megan Leavey, an affectingly unvarnished redemption story, the listless title character is fired from a dead-end job with the words, “You don’t really connect with people very well.” You could say the same of the obstinate German shepherd with whom she’ll eventually forge a deep bond, first in their Marine training and then on the frontlines in Iraq. Beyond the countless lives they save, Megan and Rex save each other.
Bringing their real-life story to the screen, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has made a movie about soldiers that’s not, strictly speaking, a war film. She’s made a love story, one that’s all the more heartstring-tugging for its cogent restraint. Though it may hit a few predictable notes, its embrace of flawed and messy characters and refusal to repair every frayed emotional connection give it a dynamic, in-the-moment vigor. At the center of the superb cast, Kate Mara delivers her strongest screen work to date, revealing, beneath her signature steeliness, a young woman’s unraveling and resolve.
As Mara’s Megan explains in stage-setting voiceover, nothing is keeping her in her suburban New York hometown. Her alternately strained and explosive interactions with her mother (Edie Falco) and stepdad (Will Patton) demonstrate the point. Recognizing the downward slope she’s been on since the death of her best friend, she enlists in the Marines on an impulse, grasping at something that might give her life structure.
But it isn’t until she meets Rex, a four-legged member of the Military Police K9 unit, that she finds her true purpose, focusing her every waking moment on qualifying for the position of dog handler. Rex (played in most scenes by a large, soulful-eyed German shepherd named Varco) has been a problem trainee, but he responds to Megan and proves himself more than up to the job when they’re deployed to Iraq, where they make a formidable team — until they’re injured by an IED and separated by the Marines.
In her first stint at the helm of a narrative film, Cowperthwaite, whose Blackfish was a gripping exposé about captive killer whales, is as attuned to the power of the human-animal bond as she is to the binding force of trauma in the crucible of war. With fine contributions from production designer Ed Verreaux and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore, she gives the Iraq sequences (shot in Spain) a compelling tension, whether in the oppressive openness of the desert or amid the rubble, traffic and checkpoints of Ramadi. As Rex sniffs out IEDs, Senatore occasionally places the camera at dog’s-eye level, a choice that heightens the dread while deepening the feeling of interdependence between corporal and canine.
Megan’s story ultimately turns into a public campaign to adopt her war-hero partner despite daunting red tape and the unhelpful ruling of an inflexible veterinarian (Geraldine James). The film celebrates the heroism of Leavey, Rex and others, yet it’s far more complex than a rah-rah paean. The appearance on a stateside TV screen showing Colin Powell’s testimony about WMDs provides all the commentary needed about the policies that send soldiers — human and nonhuman alike — into battle.
Megan Leavey is a portrait of military life as a working-class career. (Leavey herself, long retired from the service, cameos as a drill instructor.) In a tough but sympathetic turn that characterizes the film’s overall view of military camaraderie, Common plays Gunny Martin, the no-nonsense sergeant who mentors the directionless Megan. As another sergeant, Harry Potter alum Tom Felton is as kind as he is plainspoken about the horrors of the front.
A more bittersweet complexity infuses Megan’s friendship and budding romance with a dog handler and fellow New Yorker named Morales, played with terrific charm by Ramon Rodriguez. He and Mara give the couple’s flirtatious badinage the smart-ass snap of native New Yorkers’ speech. But beyond their Mets-vs.-Yankees rivalry, they eventually must face fundamental differences vis-a-vis their goals.
The screenplay, credited to Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt, finds nuance in every exchange, whether the moment is comic, heartbreaking or a lived-in fusion of the two. That’s especially true on the home front, where the incisive writing and performances make whole lifetimes fully felt in even the briefest of scenes. As an often flailing mother offering excruciatingly tone-deaf gifts, Falco is typically excellent, and Patton fumbles with good-natured cluelessness as the second husband her daughter disdains.
Bradley Whitford’s understated turn as Megan’s father comes to the fore late in the film, when she’s fallen yet again into a deep depression, after her war injury. Mara exposes every raw nerve beneath the surly surface, and Whitford infuses his pep talk with the aching tenderness of a man trying to get his daughter back into the day-to-day business of living. He tells her to figure out what would make it worth it. In Cowperthwaite’s sharp, compassionate film, Megan’s unhesitating answer — “Rex,” she says — is not only powerfully evident, but it’s enough.
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Production company: LD Entertainment
Cast: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Will Patton, Sam Keeley, Common, Edie Falco, Geraldine James, Jeremy Jones
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenwriters: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
Executive producers: Robert Huberman, Scott Holroyd, Nicole Stojkovich, Jose Luis Escolar
Director of photography: Lorenzo Senatore
Production designer: Ed Verreaux
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editor: Peter McNulty
Music Mark Isham
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee, Camilla-Valentine Isola
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes