A film about a woman and a dog already has one at a distinct advantage. Critical faculties are of little avail against the soulful eyes of an adorable canine. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film Megan Leavey (opening June 9, 2017) pulls at the heartstrings with near shameless abandon, and for the most part it works.
Cowperthwaite’s previous film Blackfish almost singlehandedly changed hearts and minds about keeping orcas in captivity. In Megan Leavey, she has a very different animal tale to tell. At the outset of the action, Megan (Kate Mara) is drifting through life. Her best friend has died, her mother is a nightmare, and life holds little promise. What’s a girl to do but join the marines! The film trots through the early scenes of boot camp brutality with a quick step. A montage of climbing over things and getting screamed at by men in big hats, and she is a full-fledged fighting machine. But no sooner has Megan made it to Camp Pendleton than she is on probation for drunkenly peeing outside the Officer’s quarters. Her punishment is canine poo duty, washing out the kennels of the bomb-sniffing dogs. When Megan meets Rex, a burly brute of a German Shepherd, with a bite that can break bone, it isn’t exactly love at first sight. But between woman and beast, there is a moment of recognition that grows into trust, and finally something approaching an unbreakable bond. The pair is shipped off to a tour of duty in Iraq, and quickly develop into a top-notch bomb-detecting squad. A few hundred missions, a purple heart, and a bad case of PTSD later, and Megan and Rex return home, wounded in both mind and body. But of course, this is only the beginning of the real battle.
Based on a true story, Megan Leavey is a sturdy film, constructed out of heavy weight timbers, like love, loyalty, and duty. Any one who has ever loved a dog will no doubt come away, tear-stained and destroyed, but don’t expect any more complex ideas about the US military. As the titular character, Kate Mara is the right combination of sentiment and stoicism. The supporting cast including Edie Falco as Megan’s selfish monster mother, Common as her supervising officer Sergeant Martin, and Ramon Rodriguez as a love interest named Morales get some attention. But really, this is a one woman, one dog show. — Dorothy Woodend
Team #MOTW Comments:
Betsy Bozdech Based on the true story of a U.S. Marine who formed a strong bond with the bomb-sniffing dog she was partnered with in Iraq, “Megan Leavey” has lasting resonance. That’s thanks in large part to a powerful, grounded lead performance by Kate Mara, who renders Megan a complex, relatable woman. But credit is also due to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriters Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo (branching out far beyond “Bridesmaids”!), and Tim Lovestedt, who all work together to successfully combine the story’s mix of gritty realism and authentic emotion. And the movie’s big, doggy heart, Rex, is sure to get you, too.
Jeanne Wolf: The title of Megan Leavey doesn’t give you a hint about what’s to come in this compelling real-life story. Kate Mara stars as the Marine who puts her life on the line in Iraq alongside her German Shepherd Rex. A dog who will grab your heart and moments of intense emotion make this much more than another war movie although there are some tough battle scenes. It’s also a love story as Megan and Rex face possible separation after both are injured in an IED explosion. Megan fights a new battle to keep them together. She’s determined to cut the red tape that prevents her from adopting the four-legged guy who always had her back. Kate delivers a strong performance as a woman who struggles to make it as a Marine and finds the support she needs from her canine buddy. And she’s undaunted in determination to mount a public campaign to keep him. Megan Leavey is directed by Gabriella Cowperthwaithe who struck a blow for ending the captivity of Killer Whales with her award-winning doc Blackfish.
Nell Minow: After hundreds of fact-based films about men in the American military, it is very good to see this compelling, thoughtfully presented story of a woman Marine who finds purpose in working with a dog, and then, after she is injured, finds purpose again in giving him a home.
Anne Brodie: As unlikely a heroine as Megan Leavey seemed to be pre-military, she makes the journey to self worth and purpose thanks to a dog named Rex. Being his caretaker and bomb sniffing trainer, Leavey found a reason to actually engage in life. Gabriela Cowperthwaite allows things to unfold naturally so there is no jarring suddenness or strains on our belief. I hesitate to call the film heartwarming as much of the action takes place under deadly circumstances on the Iraq battlefield, but there is good to be pulled from her experiences, however painful. There is something about the film that gets under our skin, maybe reaffirmation of our connection to animals and all living things. Best thing, it avoids cheap sentimentality.
Jennifer Merin: In her first narrative feature, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite does a beautiful job of bringing the true story of a heroic woman to the screen. Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is a troubled young woman who joins the Marines to escape dauntingly difficult life circumstances. Marine Corps circumstances lead her to become a Working Dog Handler in charge of a remarkably intelligent, extremely aggressive and always challenging canine named Rex. While deployed on bomb sniffing duty to the Middle East, facing the wages of war raging around them, both are wounded. Essentially, they save each other. They are both heroes. And, yes, this dog is this woman’s best friend. The film is femme-centric and inspiring.
Cate Marquis: 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. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore: Sometimes when someone asks you what a person is like, you can only answer, “They’re… nice.” For me, this is how the overall pace and flow of Megan Leavey played. While the story is entertaining enough, it’s numerous lulls and predictability felt too often like a lifetime movie rather than a big screen feature film. While Kate Mara does a lovely job and the addition of some pretty heavy hitting stars in each supporting role was a treat, the single major action sequence left me wanting more.
Cynthia Fuchs: “I left this place a thousand times in my mind, but I never actually went anywhere,” says Megan Leavey (Kate Mara). That place is home, a small town in upstate New York with an unsupportive mother (Edie Falco) and a kindly but mostly absent father (Bradley Whitford). Megan’s sense of confinement shapes the early scenes in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s movie: trucks, railroad tracks, and a hulking factory form internal frames as she looks off-screen. Her escape is the Marines: it’s 2003 and the war in Iraq is underway, a war the movie uses a backdrop for the story of Megan’s coming of age. Read full review.
Title: Megan Leavey
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Release Date: June 9, 2017
Running Time: 116 minutes
Principal Cast: Kate Mara, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James
Screenwriter: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumulo
Production Company: LD Entertainment
Distribution Company: Bleecker Street Media
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf, Dorothy Woodend
Written by Dorothy Woodend and Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin