“Megan Leavey” is a wartime romance, the twist being that it’s of the platonic interspecies variety. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s based-on-a-true-story drama recounts the deep bond shared by a Marine and her German Shepherd, which was forged in training, strengthened in combat, and cemented in retirement. Often too clunky for its own good, and (ahem) doggedly apolitical throughout, this earnest feel-good tale nonetheless manages to pull on the heartstrings with sufficient gentleness. Aided by a charismatic lead turn from star Kate Mara (and her canine sidekick as well), it should receive a warm, if perhaps not heroic, welcome from theatrical audiences.
Her life going nowhere fast in 2003, Megan (Mara) finds it untenable to continue living at home in Valley Cottage, New York, with her shrill divorced mother (Edie Falco), who’s now shacked up with the man (Will Patton) for whom she left Megan’s father (Bradley Whitford). Thus, for reasons only briefly sketched, Megan hops aboard a bus headed straight for a military base where, a short basic-training montage later, she’s a full-fledged Marine. Still, her course remains wayward, and upon being caught urinating in public after a night out on the town, she’s saddled with a most dishonorable duty: cleaning the kennels of the regiment’s bomb-sniffing dogs.
Watching her comrades work with the animals motivates Megan to do likewise, and she gets her chance when a particularly unruly pooch named Rex bites the hand of his human partner, shattering it in six places. Though she’s initially terrified of Rex, Megan — heeding the advice of her tough but kind superior (Common), as well as a fellow handler (Tom Felton) who’s recently returned from Iraq — soon learns to project confidence and compassion in equal measure to her four-legged companion. Before long, they’re an inseparable pair, whether running drills or hanging out together on Megan’s bed.
Making a relatively smooth transition into fiction after her acclaimed 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” director Cowperthwaite doesn’t linger too long on any of these early getting-to-know-you sequences, preferring to paint in clear, bold lines and colors so that the pace doesn’t lag. As a result, the proceedings feel distinct if not particularly deep, a shallowness that’s also attributable to cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore’s visuals, which are a cut above competent but still overly enamored with shaky-cam compositions that wobble whether the action is anxious or sedate. Yet it’s a functional style that proves most suited to the film’s centerpiece, in which Megan and Rex — having been deployed to Iraq — must identify homemade bombs (IEDs) along a barren desert road; suspense is generated via a combination of shrewd plotting and aesthetic in-the-moment bedlam.
Megan eventually strikes up an affair with fellow Marine Matt Morales (Ramón Rodríguez), despite the fact that he prefers the Mets to her beloved Yankees. But it’s Rex who continues to be the true object of her affection, and “Megan Leavey” is at its best when focusing on the shared trust and love that underscore their partnership. While Mara lacks the sort of rough-and-tumble grit one might expect to find in a Marine like Megan, her performance is rich and nuanced even in those (frequent) moments when platitudes and stilted dialogue threaten to undermine authenticity. As it details the aftermath of a battlefield trauma that leaves both its protagonists scarred and alone, Cowperthwaite’s film segues into a more predictable uplifting mode. Yet even at its most schematic and schmaltzy, it’s a cut above likeminded efforts such as “Max” and “Army Dog,” and represents a reasonably moving tribute to an unlikely, and unbreakable, friendship.