Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Marine bonds with her dog

On screen, the real-life story of Megan Leavey proves deeply affecting.

Megan Leavey can be categorized as a story about a woman and her beloved dog -- only with a major difference. The woman is Megan Leavey, a Marine and the dog is Rex, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd trained to perform in combat. The relationship between this young woman and the dog she trains saves them both.

We first meet Leavey (Kate Mara) as a disaffected young woman living in upstate New York with her hectoring mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) Leavey's life isn't going well. Her best friend died from a drug overdose. She's directionless.

Absent any other plan and facing increasing desperation, Leavey joins the Marine Corps, where she winds up working with a K9 unit -- first as punishment and later as a committed choice.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) takes us through Leavey's basic training and also introduces us to the world of military dog training. She then travels with Leavey and Rex to Iraq and deals with what happens to them after both are injured by an IED.

Scenes in Iraq have plenty of tension, but offer freshness because they focus on something we haven't much seen in movies, a woman working in a dangerous combat zone.

In Iraq, Leavey also forges a friendship with a fellow trainer, an appealing Ramon Rodriguez, who later becomes a love interest for Leavey, a plot thread that feels a bit superfluous.

Common has a nice turn as Gunny Martin, the Marine in charge of the dog-training unit in the US.

Cowperthwaite loads up on subject matter: She deals with combat and post-combat stress, as well as with the growing bond between trainer and dog.

The movie makes no attempt to raise political issues, although it tries to present a realistic portrait of life in the military and of Leavey's post-war struggles.

Mara brings vulnerability and toughness to the role, but the movie isn't without false notes.

Leavey, who ran into trouble when she tried to adopt Rex (played in the movie by a dog named Varco), sought help rom New York Senator Chuck Schumer. It would have been better not to show Schumer than to have him portrayed -- even briefly -- by an actor (Andrew Masset) who looks nothing like him. Moreover, each of the movie's several acts could have benefited from some trimming.

Still, the relationship between trainer and dog proves moving. The story of Leavey and Rex gets to you -- at least, it did to me.

Megan Leavey may not be the deepest movie you'll see this year, but it definitely shows that animals can play a major role in making people more human.

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