Leashes and heartstrings get pulled in "Megan Leavey," an even-tempered slice of pro-animal sentimentality that may not be the smoothest piece of filmmaking, but wears its emotions honestly and benefits from offering a look at a rarely explored arena of human-animal relationships: dogs trained for combat.
The story is based on the true experiences of a young woman (Kate Mara) who, in 2003, traded in a dead-end existence in upstate New York for the life of a Marine and found her calling with a four-legged German Shepherd named Rex sniffing out IEDs in Iraq. Their bond, which combines the recognizably aww-inspiring contours of pet stewardship with the deeper connection that being in combat together brings, is the emotional core of "Megan Leavey." It also marks the narrative feature debut of director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose "Blackfish" was a non-fiction sensation, and who seems to single-handedly be looking to change the definition of "creature feature."
As the movie opens, we see Megan bristling at being under the same roof as her divorced, self-centered mom (Edie Falco), who's living with a dumb-grin boyfriend (Will Patton). Joining the Marines is certainly a change, but a drunken night with gal pals signals behavioral issues to her superiors, and she's relegated to kennel-cleaning duty as a result. The fate of one irascible canine, however, spurs her to vie for a spot on the training team. Eventually assigned to Rex, the pair hit it off, and they're deployed to Ramadi and Fallujah, completing multiple missions that keep their fellow soldiers alive. The horrors of war eventually take their toll, and back home Megan has to find an extra reserve of fortitude to get through an especially trying separation from Rex.
You can grasp the thought process behind giving this material to Cowperthwaite: "Blackfish" felt like a movie first, a documentary second. Yet, early on, "Megan Leavey" has the opposite crackle — it plays real rather than massaged. It trusts you'll follow it, and that creates its own goodwill. There's a breezy, day-to-day verisimilitude to its protagonist's road from disaffected layabout to half-there recruit and, finally, once she locks eyes with Rex — an adorably commanding presence throughout — Marine with a purpose.
It's also a movie that doesn't wear its issues on its stripes. Without feeling the need to brand itself either a woman-in-the-military movie or animal-activism yarn, Cowperthwaite quietly goes about humanizing everything so that both of these elements, which might get treated as hot-button topics elsewhere, gain a kind of understated momentum all their own. Sure, that gives it the slight tinge of a chummy, politics-free, armed-services recruitment video — especially when Common's around to play the supportive sergeant always this-close from breaking into a smile. But the battle scenes are direct and tense, if not exactly original, and even when the screenplay tosses in a burgeoning flirtation with a fellow K-9er (the charming Ramon Rodriguez), "Megan Leavey" makes it feel like an extra color in a soldier's story, not a predictable story beat for a heroine.
The home front second half is choppier, though, as if it can't quite figure out how to pull all its strands together into a satisfying conclusion beyond the generically heartwarming one. It's a shame Mara is enlisted to cry so much, too, which suggests a lack of ingenuity about how to dramatize Megan's specialized cocktail of PTSD and fear for Rex. Mara's up for it all, but the nudge toward sappiness over messiness feels like the slightest step backward. And yet the character's efforts to get political about combat-scarred animals, and treating them no differently than any human veteran, is legitimately stirring. It helps "Megan Leavey" ultimately become a rarity in military-themed cinema: an affecting portrait of two war heroes, neither of whom is a human male. Will wonder women never cease? One hopes not.
Rating: PG-13, for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release