Megan Leavey (Bleeker Street Media, PG-13)

Megan Leavey offers a fresh take on an oft-told tale.

A young adult is drifting through life, angry and purposeless. Mom’s a mess, stepdad’s worse, and all the future seems to hold is a lot of fights and one dead-end job after another. Then the young adult happens by a recruiting station, has an epiphany, and joins up. It’s tough at first, with lots of running and pushups and getting yelled at by the DI, and also some self-inflicted wounds demonstrating that there’s no royal road to maturity. But gradually the young adult gains discipline and self-respect, learns to get along with other people, and becomes a contributing member of society.

You’ve heard that story before, I’m sure, but Megan Leavey offers a fresh take on an oft-told tale. First and foremost, the young adult in question is female. Second, the title character does not find her path by hooking up with the man of her dreams, but by discovering a talent she never knew she had and using it in a meaningful way. Third, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite hits all the expected beats in this coming-of-age tale, but with enough unexpected details that they seem fresh and new.

When we first meet Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), she’s living a disaffected existence with her mother Jackie (Edie Falco) in Rockland County. After being fired from a dead-end job for not being a “people person,” Leavey makes a leap of faith and joins the Marines. She dives into basic training, determined to succeed, but her old habits surface during leisure hours. One drunken incident nearly gets her kicked out, but turns out to be her lucky break instead. For punishment, she’s assigned to clean the kennels of the K-9 unit, run by Gunnery Sergeant (“Gunny”) Martin (Common). Martin is fair as well as tough and spells out for Leavey all the things she will need to do if she really wants to become a dog handler. Finally having a goal she’s motivated to work towards, Leavey keeps her nose clean and applies herself in PT and on the rifle range, eventually achieving all the required standards. She is then allowed to begin training as a dog handler, although the first step is less glamorous than expected, as it involves leading a “can” or ammo box through its paces.

The kennel has its own problem child, a German Shepherd named Rex. After Rex breaks multiple bones in the arm of his previous trainer with a single bite, Leavey is assigned to him. Gradually, she learns to communicate with him, forming the kind of bond she never managed with a human being. Together, they become an expert explosives detection team, serving two deployments in Iraq and saving countless lives thanks to their extraordinary ability to discover hidden caches of weapons, land mines, and other explosives. Eventually, though, their number comes up, and both Rex and Leavey are seriously injured by an IED. The third act of Megan Leavey follows Leavey’s readjustment to civilian life and her efforts to get Rex released into her care.

Megan Leavey is Cowperthwaite’s first feature film, but she’s no newcomer to cinema. Her previous work includes writing and directing the much-honored documentary Blackfish and producing episodes of the History Channel series Shootout! covering aspects of the Iraq War. That background may have encouraged her to let the Leavey’s story (which is based on the real life of a real person) speak for itself, rather than ramping up the emotion by employing some of the many clichés associated with war films, and the result is a much stronger film. In fact, I expect to see multiple Oscar nominations for this film, including Best Actress (Mara), Best Supporting Actor (Common), Best Original Screenplay (Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt), and Best Director (Cowperthwaite). | Sarah Boslaugh

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