Named after the woman who protected soldiers in Iraq with her IED-detecting K9 officer, Sergeant Rex, “Megan Leavey” might be a story about war, but it’s much more a tale about the bond between humans and animals. “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was recruited to direct her first narrative feature by star Kate Mara, who was inspired by Cowperthwaite’s animal advocacy with the Sea World documentary. In placing the relationship between K9 dogs and their handlers at the forefront of this story, this film about war is far more a story about compassionate connection under fire than the circumstances that lead to such events.
Leavey (Mara) signs up for the Marines as a way out of her dead-end life, and there, she finds a purpose, and a soul mate, in Rex. As a female K9 handler in Iraq during the height of the conflict in the early 2000s, she is out in front of the front lines before women were even allowed in combat, and Cowperthwaite captures that queasy sense of unease and terror of walking out into unknown territory, bombs potentially anywhere underfoot. Wounded in an explosion, Leavey is awarded a Purple Heart, and leaves the Marines, but is separated from Rex, who is re-deployed. Thus, she begins an odyssey to reunite with and adopt her best friend.
Though the film starts in 2001, the events of 9/11 don’t factor into the story. The writers, Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt, focus on the interpersonal motivations, keeping the world and perspective honed in on Megan’s experience with Rex. The unspoken yet ever-present undercurrent running throughout is a theme of mental health struggles. Whether or not that was something that the real Megan Leavey faced, it’s undoubtedly an issue that plagues veterans. For the purposes of the film, these mental health challenges make up the dramatic dynamic of the film’s story — her depression is what motivates her to join up, her trauma bonds her to Rex, her post-war grief spurs her into action.
While that theme simmers below the surface, some of the expositional dialogue can prove to be a bit on the nose. Animals make for good screenwriting devices, as characters can speak their inner feelings to them, but that doesn’t make for the most subtle or efficient screenwriting.
As a director, Cowperthwaite doesn’t lean into overly dramatic moments, and in fact, they can often waft by surprisingly quickly. While sometimes this results in a personal motivation that feels a bit scanty and shallow, it’s actually refreshing for this genre. “Megan Leavey,” despite its story of wartime heroism, isn’t a jingoistic, sentimental slice of pure patriotism. It’s far more an intimate drama about a personal journey, a story about true love and companionship — how showing up for others can help you to show up for yourself. Those lessons are universally useful, and always inspiring.
Walsh writes for Tribune News Service.
2.5 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements.
Cast: Kate Mara, Common, Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, Tom Felton and Ramon Rodriguez
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Opening: Friday at area theaters