Confession: I'm a dog lover. So take this praise with a grain of salt if you must – but Megan Leavey had me at first bark. Based on a true story (no, really!), this war drama deftly sidesteps the paths that suck you down in sentimental quicksand. Oh, you'll cry all right. But the movie earns your tears.
Kate Mara is raw and riveting in the title role, a marine who ends up in combat in Iraq with Rex, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd in the Military Police K9 unit. Nobody likes Rex. He barks, snarls, bites and breaks the bones in the hand of one of his handlers. Megan can relate. She's an aimless troublemaker who's constantly ragging on her mom (Edie Falco), back in Valley Cottage, N.Y., for divorcing her dad for a loser (Will Patton). Having been assigned kennel duty (read: mopping up dog shit) for peeing outside the officers barracks, Megan has seen Rex as his worst. Also, she sees herself in this stubborn animal, becoming increasingly fascinated to learn how a hardass, canine or human, can fight the odds and do a job well. They're a perfect match.
Much of the film's effectiveness is due to the vigor and vigilance of director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who brings the keen eye of a documentarian (her 2013 exposé Blackfish shined a light on the plight of captive orcas at SeaWorld) to her debut in features. Training scenes can be boilerplate, but Cowperthwaite turns them on their clichéd heads. Megan's military superiors, Gunny Martin (Common) and Andrew Dean (a terrific Tom Felton), waste no time coddling her about the terror of what's ahead. (Leavey herself does a cameo as a drill instructor.) The combat scenes, with Rex sniffing out IEDs in the desert or at a crowded marketplace in Ramadi, explode with tension; kudos to cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore for keeping it down-and-dirty real instead of Hollywood slick.
The screenplay by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt sometimes stalls in familiar corners, such as a romance for Megan with a marine and fellow New Yorker (Ramon Rodriguez) who sexily mock-feud about the Mets vs. the Yankees. But the core of this love story is her bond with Rex, played by a scene-stealing German shepherd named Varco. Megan, retired from service, wants to bring the dog home to heal together from PTSD. But Rex is ruled "unadoptable" by a military doc (Geraldine James) who thinks you can't domesticate an animal who might rip a toy gun out of a child's hand – or worse. The battle becomes a cause for Megan and anyone who watches this heartbreaker of a movie.
Mara is funny, fierce and altogether wonderful, even up against an irresistible costar. And Cowperthwaite joins Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) as the third woman director this month who shows the old boys club a real definition of craft. We hope it's a trend.