The story, based on true events, is about young Megan Leavey, who doesn’t know what to do with her life when her best friend dies. She sinks into a depression and when her mother doesn’t stop nagging her to get out of the house and find a job, in a surprise move, this girl who doesn’t seem to want to listen to anyone and according to her mother, doesn’t "connect with people very well," joins the Marines.
That’s when the movie really gets interesting. From the opening scenes, we wonder if Megan will make it through basic training, which includes extreme physical challenges, brutal wake up calls -- and a lot of yelling at new recruits.
Even as she makes her way through training, Megan doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself. Each Marine has to decide on a specialty, and Megan struggles to find her place.
When she's ordered to clean out the canine quarters and watches the K-9 patrol at work, Megan decides she’s found her calling. Although she’s allowed to join the K-9 team, she doesn’t have a dog to work with at first. Only when one of the men is injured by Rex, the most aggressive dog on the team, is she assigned a dog -- Rex.
Although she’s understandably fearful of Rex at first, Megan is determined and gets to work at bonding with him. Soon, almost before they’re fully trained, they’re sent to Iraq to sniff out explosive devices.
Along the way, Megan becomes involved with a fellow Marine who seems like a nice enough guy. He wants to discuss the future, but Megan is hesitant. She watched her parents’ marriage fall apart and she’s in no hurry to figure out with whom she’s going to spend her life.
However, having said that, despite the fact that this may look like a movie about war, it’s really a love story -- between Megan and Rex. Megan is completely devoted to her canine partner, whom she has come to view as her dog. She comes to trust him enough that he's allowed loose in her quarters and even sleeps on her bed. They form a deep bond, both on and off duty. As a team, they find numerous bombs and IEDs and in doing so, save many American lives.
Inevitably, one day as they approach a suspiciously placed car, it explodes, sending Megan and Rex flying.
Megan, injured, is sent home as a war hero. Rex also comes home to recuperate, but to Megan's dismay, is soon shipped right back overseas.
Although Megan misses Rex and applies to adopt him, he’s deemed too aggressive and she realizes that when his time in the military comes to an end, his future may be bleak.
About to lose another best friend in Rex, Megan finds herself sinking into depression again. Her father (Bradley Whitford) steps in and gives her the inspiration to do what has to be done to get her life back on track.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite makes the most of every scene. We get just enough glimpses of Megan’s life before she enlists to get a feeling for who she is and what she’s gone through. We see enough shots of her in training to realize that Marine life can’t be easy for this girl, but we admire her for not just sticking it out, but struggling to find a place for herself.
But what makes this movie work is not just the story of bonding between a human and an animal. Kate Mara in the lead role -- despite the fact that she’s playing someone who mostly keeps to herself, and usually doesn’t exude much warmth around people -- imbues her character with an enormous amount of likability.
With not much of a support system at home, Megan gets the audience’s sympathy early on -- I found myself wanting her to succeed every step of the way.
If you love animals, you’ll be moved by this film -- in fact, make sure to bring tissues. When Megan tearfully tells a support group what she would tell Rex if he was there with her, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
If you’ve never experienced the bond between animals and humans, then this is a perfect movie to watch in order to understand how and why animals can bring so much joy to our lives. The message behind Megan Leavey is powerful and compelling for audiences of all ages. ~Alexandra Heilbron