The bond between a person and an animal can transcend all other loyalties and relationships. That is the main lesson to be learned from “Megan Leavey,” the true story of the lost soul of the title (Kate Mara) who found meaning in the Marine Corps as a handler of a bomb-sniffing dog. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”), the film is less resolved on other relevant issues such as sexism, the Iraq War, and the decline and ennui of the working class.
Leavey hails from that class. She lives in a depressed small town in New York, whose misery Cowperthwaite evokes with an acute but subdued detailing. In her 20s, a heavy drinker who can’t keep a job, and from a crass and broken family, Leavey is ready for a change when her best friend dies of an opioid overdose. The end of the road brings her to a Marine recruitment office and a boot camp where she endures the same hardships as the male enlistees.
Actually, she endures more. After a post-graduation indiscretion she’s assigned a punishment detail — cleaning the cages of the dogs in the K9 corps. One of the dogs, Rex, terrifies and fascinates her. Though he scares her, she tells the dog that she thinks she might have what it takes to scare him as well.
Determined to become a handler, she fulfills the qualifications and undergoes the intense program. But instead of a dog she is given a can to train with. Gender discrimination? Cowperthwaite doesn’t make a big deal about it. Fortuitously, like in a musical in which the ingénue breaks a leg and the understudy gets her chance, Rex’s handler is bitten just before the unit is about to be transferred and Leavey is given charge of her dream dog.
Although Cowperthwaite is no Kathryn Bigelow, and Iraq and its people serve just as a desolate backdrop, the bomb detection and defusing scenes are tense, especially a climactic operation in which both Leavey and Rex are wounded. They are cited as heroes, but, the troubles of both are just beginning, as they must face the task of rehabilitation to civilian life.
Perhaps it’s just as well that other issues remain in the background and the film focuses instead on the bond between Leavey and Rex. Not only is it a compelling metaphor for a woman finding independence and empowerment, it dramatizes a primal emotional relationship that proves heartbreaking and triumphant.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Written by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt. Starring Kate Mara, Ramón Rodríguez, Tom Felton, Will Patton. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 116 minutes. PG-13 (war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements).