I might have had something in my eye there by the end of this deeply satisfying military drama, which demonstrates that a simple story — even a familiar one — can be powerfully effective when told with big heart and solid craft.
This one isn’t entirely familiar, however. The honking big freshness to Megan Leavey is right there in the title: here it’s a young woman with no direction in life and few skills for coping with adult relationships who gains confidence and finds purpose when she joins the Marines, almost on a whim. This is a path that surely many women have taken, just as many men do, but one we rarely see onscreen. Leavey’s is even a true story, and as long as we insist upon maintaining such an expansive military, it’s absolutely vital that our popular storytelling reflects that it represents such an opportunity for women as well as for men. (I have not done a quantitative study, but I feel like there are far fewer movies that bear the names of their female protagonists than there are movies with men’s names as titles. So that’s something else to love here too.)
Kate Mara (Morgan, The Martian) is terrific navigating Leavey’s restive despair as it slowly morphs into patience and power and confidence as she connects with and trains Rex, a bomb-sniffing dog with a bit of an attitude problem himself. Gabriela Cowperthwaite — the documentarian who gave us the astonishing Blackfish — makes her narrative debut here, and handles with surety the film’s dynamic central combat sequence, which is as viscerally thrilling as anything we saw in, say, The Hurt Locker. (The film notes slyly that even though women were supposedly not allowed to take combat roles at the time when Leavey was deployed in Iraq, in the mid 2000s, de facto combat roles were unavoidable for anyone there.) And Cowperthwaite avoids anything approaching the cornball in the intimate interactions between Leavey and her parents (Edie Falco [Random Hearts, Judy Berlin] and Bradley Whitford [Get Out, Saving Mr. Banks]), the fellow Marine (Ramon Rodriguez: Need for Speed, Battle: Los Angeles) she falls into a romantic relationship with, and of course with Rex. (Leavey bears no resemblance whatsoever to 2015’s appalling propagandistic military-dog movie Max. Thank goodness.) The script — by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo (Joy, Bridesmaids), and Tim Lovestedt — is uncomplicated, but in an era of overplotted blockbusters, its straightforwardness is actually sort of bracing.
There may be little that’s unexpected in Megan Leavey, but in this case, that’s just fine. This is an instant comfort movie for lovers of dogs and for anyone who longs — as I do — to see more stories about women living their ordinary lives, facing ordinary challenges, and succeeding on their own terms. We don’t get anywhere near enough movies like this one.