Can a film be clunky, manipulative, and schmaltzy, and still manage to get you choked up? Sure, there are a ton of mediocre tearjerkers that basically pry the tears out of your eyes with a sap and a crowbar. Megan Leavey is one of those strong-arm soaps, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it has a certain secret weapon in the forced-waterworks department—an adorable bomb-sniffing German shepherd. All together now: Awwwwww.
Based on a true story, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film stars Kate Mara as a young woman in a spiritual rut who comes from a small town and a broken home (Edie Falco and Bradley Whitford play her divorced parents). Mara’s Megan hasn’t been the same since her best friend died of a drug overdose. She’s wracked with survivor’s guilt, depression, and the kind of can’t-get-out-of-bed aimlessness that makes holding down a job difficult. Her people skills aren’t just lacking, they’re nonexistent. So, in the kind of fast-forward plotting that could only exist in a movie racing to get in and out of its furry, four-legged redemption story in under two hours, Megan enlists with the Marines where she will end up finding the canine that will give her life meaning.
Mara, an actress who’s probably best known for her early arc and oncoming-train demise in House of Cards, isn’t the most expressive actress. Frankly, she’s a bit flat. And everything that happens in Megan Leavey before the dog enters the picture is pretty flat, too. But after being caught publicly urinating after a night of drinking, she’s punished by being assigned to clean out cages in the K-9 unit. And that’s where she meets Rex—the meanest dog in the kennel. It’s love at first sight. Well, after he bites her in the ass.
First impressions aside, Rex turns out to be big, soulful-eyed pussycat beneath his ferocious bark. But really, only for her. These two have a special bond. And Megan becomes a model Marine trying to get assigned as his handler. In no time (literally, the film always seems like it’s rushing to catch a train), the two are shipped over to Iraq where they save lives sniffing out IEDs. Cowperthwaite (who directed the 2013 documentary Blackfish) does better in this middle stretch of the film with a handful of tense combat scenes that show the daily dangers they face and how every step could be your last one. But then these soul mates are separated and the film makes a u-turn right back to schmaltzville.
In the end, what sticks with you isn’t Mara or the superficial, one-woman’s-inspirational-journey narrative, but rather Rex and the crumpled wad of Kleenex at your feet. If you’re looking for a good cry, Megan Leavey gets the job done, I suppose. But it’s a bit like a wet kiss from a puppy. Heartwarming and sloppy. C+