MEGAN LEAVEY — Review by Cate Marquis

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MEGAN LEAVEY is a moving “girl and her dog” story, except the “girl” is actually a troubled young woman Marine struggling to find her footing and the dog is no sweet, friendly pooch but a military dog with talent for detecting explosives but a terrible temperament. Together they discover what neither could find on their own. Continue reading…

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s moving but flawed film is based on the true story of Megan Leavey and her German Shepherd dog Rex. The story follows the two as they meet in basic training and serve in the Iraq War together searching for IED and other explosives. The bond they form carries on into civilian life.

If you are a soft touch for true-story dog tales, this one’s got your number. And MEGAN LEAVEY is much better as a true tale of a war dog than 2015’s sappy MAX.

On the surface, MEGAN LEAVEY looks like a war movie but it really is not. It is a dog story, about the love between this one woman and her dog. It is not a war film per se, but a story set in war more in the vein of WAR HORSE.

In fact, the film says next to nothing about the Iraq War beyond Megan’s own personal experiences. Although Meagan Leavey and her dog prove themselves on the battlefield in Iraq, the film really has nothing to say on the war itself, negative or positive. A television in the background of a scene as Megan announces she has joined the military, shows Colin Powell testifying about Saddam Hussein and “yellow cake.” It sets the time period and is about the only reference to a reason for the war. This determined lack of commentary in a film set in a war still going on seems unsettling, and certainly will bother some viewers.

This film focuses only on the personal story, a touching feel-good tale of finding one’s self through an animal companion. Megan does not join out of a sense of patriotism – she is running away from her unhappy life, just like countless men who have joined the military throughout time. Megan feels she has no place in the world and no reason to stay where she is. Her best friend just died, her parents are divorced, and she doesn’t get along with her mother, with whom she lives. More than that, Meagan just doesn’t seem to get along with people in general. In the military, she does no better, and is constantly in trouble. When one misdeed earns her punishment cleaning kennels for the canine unit. There, she meets another misfit, Rex, a dog no one can handle. It’s not love at first sight but Megan begs to be transferred to the canine unit. Megan has found her mission, and she sets her mind on winning over the big dog. Megan and Rex become an unbreakable team, in the military and beyond.

Kate Mara’s restrained performance as Megan might not be to every taste but it seems to suit this difficult, troubled woman. The focus is on Megan’s story, and her emotional progress and personal growth as she learns to work with, then trust her canine companion. Her relationship with the dog helps her to improve her ability to interact with her own species as well.

Cowperwaite’s previous film was the documentary BLACKFISH, a remarkable expose on the treatment of orcas in captivity. The director makes a good but not perfect transition to fictional films here. The film hits the right emotional notes, is well-paced, and avoids the over-sentimental while being moving. Although this is a true story, it is hardly complete picture of either the war in Iraq or women’s experience in the armed services. The men treat Megan like any recruit, and in Iraq, where she is the only woman in the deployed canine unit, she faces no great difficulties beyond skepticism about her ability to do the job. She never gets more than a few grumbles and leering looks, none of the kind of harassment and worse that women have reported enduring. Instead, this is just Megan Leavey’s own personal experience, not a depiction of other women’s treatment in the military generally.

MEAGAN LEAVEY is best when it focuses on Megan and Rex, the warm, winning girl-and-her-dog love story at its center. It is foremost a personal story, about the bond between a woman and her dog and how they rescued each other and found a purpose in each other.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.