I’ll admit, when I heard of the film Megan Leavey, which opened this past weekend, I was pretty sure I knew exactly what it was: a sad dog movie. Whether we're talking about Hachi, Marley and Me, or last year's controversial A Dog's Purpose, movies about man's best friend tend to have a common thread: One character has a huge problem connecting with other people (usually the human) and the other is deemed unfriendly or unwanted (usually the dog).
Based on a true story, Leavey is played by Kate Mara, a woman looking for purpose in her life after her friend passes away. Rather than spend her days drinking aimlessly and showing up hungover for her dead-end job, she decides to join the Marines. She struggles with emotional connection, whether dealing with her irresponsible mother or her similarly non-emotive father. Rex is a Marines K9 who is aggressive, disobedient, and defiant. After he bites the hand of his previous partner, breaking six bones in the process, he’s transferred to Leavey’s care. Surprisingly (or not), the two form an unlikely bond, and are shipped to Iraq where they work together to sniff out improvised explosive devices.
Megan Leavey, in many ways, does follow the stereotype. But the core of the film is much more than that. (Warning: major plot spoilers ahead!) For one, unlike most movies where a dog is a major character, Rex doesn’t die in the movie. Nor does Rex run up and slobber on the face of her would-be romantic interest forcing them to meet. Rex is a hero, but not in the earnest sense that we often see. This dog brings about true self-awareness and emotional clarity for his caregiver. And I doubt that's a coincidence considering this film not only stars a woman but was also written and directed by mostly women.
The film’s strongest suit, however, is its lesson on the importance of emotional vulnerability. For all the "emotionless" stereotype setup, Leavey is surprisingly likable, and not unjustified in her apathy toward her family. Her mother spends the entire film doing the bare minimum to connect with her daughter, all the while expecting more in return. Her father, though seemingly well-intentioned, is so absent he doesn’t even appear until the third act. Which is to say: Leavey isn’t just an entitled brat; her dissatisfaction is understandable, as is her overwhelming inability to develop emotional intimacy with others. This is where the heart of the movie lies.
When the story begins Leavey can’t connect, and Rex doesn’t play nice with others. The two bond over their shared experiences. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Leavey resists emotional attachment with everyone she meets—except when working with Rex. When pursuing a romantic interest, Matt Morales (Ramón Rodríguez), a fellow officer and K9 handler, she is quick to not put any labels on their relationship, preferring to keep things casual. Yet it’s clear she wants to be more emotionally open, even if she doesn’t know how. When Morales tells her he’s taken another deployment, after she has decided to not return to Iraq, she becomes upset with him. The two had never talked about their plans together, a fact Morales rightfully brings up, but evidently Leavey was expecting more.
The film goes on to explore the other aspects of Leavey's struggle between emotional codependency and emotional intimacy. She spends the entire film resisting people, and avoiding opening up. After a dangerous encounter in Iraq, she returns to the states and re-enters life as a civilian without Rex, who was cleared to continue his job. She is rendered almost helpless without him, moping around and constantly wondering what the dog is doing. It isn’t until her previously absent father reminds her that some things, like losing a loved one or deciding to leave a job, require showing up, and not just physically, that she begins to own her emotions. In order to move forward she takes a turn toward self-awareness and growth, and in the end, Megan Leavey imparts the important lesson that emotional vulnerability is not a weakness.
Still Megan Leavey succumbs to a fair amount of cliché. It’s never clearly defined what sets Leavey apart from Rex’s previous partners, or why they work so well together. And while the best parts of the film are when Leavey and Rex work together in Iraq, it seems like a missed opportunity that the story glossed over Leavey’s take on being a female Marine in a mostly male deployment (although perhaps that, in itself, is a statement). I can’t be too upset with Megan Leavey though. For me, the true lesson of learning to open up and let people into your life is a worthwhile reason for watching.
The real-life Leavey was awarded a Purple Heart for her service, and performed more than a hundred missions with her fellow canine sergeant. The former Marine says she’s happy with how the film turned out, saying that the heart of the film—her relationship with Rex—was accurately depicted.
In the end, Leavey finds a cause worth fighting for—bringing Rex home from Iraq—and it becomes something more than anything she's fought for previously. By the time the credits roll, Leavey finally comes to a place where she willingly allows herself to feel. And that's ultimately where the film succeeds. Not just another dog movie, Megan Leavey is about the importance of emotional growth and allowing ourselves to feel all of the beautiful, messy things that make us human.
Photo Credit: Obscured Pictures