Over the past two decades or so, movies “based on a true story” have become somewhat of a sub-genre in the film industry. The term is used fairly liberally and featured prominently throughout the promotional materials, mainly as an advertising tactic to drum up interest and sell tickets. In the wake of that strategy, a few of these films manage to leave an indelible impact on the culture via particularly strong acting performances or poignant subject matter, but the vast majority settle into a comfortable and familiar mediocrity. Megan Leavey finds itself towards the latter.  

The story follows a young woman looking to leave her small town life behind and her journey of self discovery. Looking to catalyze significant change, she enlists in the Marine Corps. Needless to say things don’t go smoothly at first, but Leavey finds her niche working with bomb sniffing dogs during the Iraq war in the early 2000s. She is introduced to a problematic K-9 trainee named Rex and the pair form a tentative respect for one another, seemingly based on mutual fear. Before long, the pair is deployed to Iraq and forced to bond under increasingly tense circumstances. When their tours of duty are over, Leavey begins the long and arduous task of adopting Rex from the Marine Corps. Despite her distinguished service record she finds it much more difficult than one might imagine.

Kate Mara took center stage as the titular character. It was a good role for her and a chance to stretch her wings after the forgettable Morgan (2016). Unfortunately, while she was good in the film and showed more range than usual, her performance wasn’t particularly noteworthy. I’ve seen a fair amount of her work over the years, and she’s never what I would call bad, but I’m not usually able to fully suspend my disbelief and just see the character. Thus was the case for the majority of the film, but as emotions intensified the veteran actress was able to match the tone well.

Elaine Grainger, Camilla-Valentine Isola, and Matthew Sefick cast a wonderful group of experienced actors that filled in all the key supporting roles and really helped bring this story to life. Ramon Rodriguez had strong chemistry with Mara, playing fellow Marine dog trainer Matt Morales. There was a certain intangible comfortability which seemed to come from working with the dogs and it played well on screen. The dialogue between the pair felt naturally at ease and was the right blend of playful and flirtatious, but didn’t get bogged down trying to minimize the serious nature of the film. Boasting plenty of charm and charisma, this role should open the door to some better opportunities for Rodriguez soon.

Credit to Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Peter Lovestedt for finding that balance and delivering a strong screenplay which attracted big name talent. The always spectacular Edie Falco played Megan’s mother and stole every scene she was in, despite limited total screen time. Alongside Will Patton as Jackie’s lover Jim, the pair put a firm stamp on the home life Megan was trying to escape by enlisting. Bradley Whitford played Megan’s dad with even less screen time than Falco, but still delivers probably the most important piece of dialogue in the film. Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) continues cutting his teeth with diverse roles and reveals multiple layers as a veteran teacher and soldier in the marine K-9 division. For all the seasoned talent throughout the cast, it was Common who delivered the most surprising performance as the head of the dog training program.

Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite did a good job at the helm of her first non-documentary feature, with a firm understanding of the subject matter. She knew that although this is a war movie in many ways, it’s not an action flick or a war epic. It has a lot of heart and that’s really where the focus is. The movie is mainly about relationships she and does a good job highlighting that theme without being preachy about it. There is no secret this one is meant to tug at your heartstrings and it does just that. This was a good film that succeeded in getting its point across, but there is a fair chance it will be mostly forgotten by the time awards season rolls around.

Recommendation: If you have a dog, this is close to a must see movie. The bond forming is authentic and hits close to home. Courage and commitment is inspirational and without any graphic violence, substantial profanity, or nudity, this movie is a good investment for a family outing.

Grade: C+