Best Friends Forever: Kate Mara Girl-and-Dog Drama ‘Megan Leavey’ Bites

Kate Mara and a dog in Megan Leavey. Bleecker Street

The transition from documentary to narrative filmmaker isn’t easy. Consider the glorious debut of Gabriella Cowperthwaite, the producer-director of the game-changing Blackfish, the powerful documentary that uncovered Sea World’s murky practices regarding its most famous captive species, the killer whale. Not only was that film riveting, it also had the power to tarnish the corporate brand of the marine theme park chain. Not bad for a first-time filmmaker who stumbled into a great story and wouldn’t let it go – and who now turns to fiction with Megan Leavey, a trying fact-based drama about a reluctant Marine (Kate Mara) and her bomb-sniffing dog Rex.

With a female-directed film this small bringing to life a female-driven script by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo and Tim Lovestedt, criticizing it feels a little like beating a baby seal. It’s so well intentioned, a ripped from the headlines human-and-dog interest story about a troubled child of divorce who escapes her dead-end town by joining the Marines. The first problem is that just because it’s based on a gripping true story doesn’t mean that it’s dramatic on the screen.

Crucial narrative tension is sorely lacking here. The first 25 minutes are a prelude to a prelude, full of flat exposition, shots through chain-link fence and dreary military-life montages. This is a combination of a weak script that could have shorthanded the backstory and aimed, with David Mamet precision, for the action. When that comes – when Leavey heads to Iraq and Afghanistan with her high-strung German shepherd bomb-sniffer, the movie heats up.

MEGAN LEAVEY (2/4 stars)

Directed by: Gabriella Cowperthwaite

Written by: Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt

Starring: Kate Mara, Ramon Rodriguez, Edie Falco, Common, Bradley Whitfield Running time: 112 mins.

For twenty cracking minutes, the pair searches for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) gets the audience’s blood begins to race. In these scenes that echo The Hurt Locker among many other films, there is something very real at stake. And Mara, swaddled in protective gear, with a square of her face pouting out beneath her helmet, comes briefly alive beside her noble sharp-toothed beast.

But Mara (127 Hours, The Martian), like her sister Rooney, is hit or miss – and she just can’t carry this weak script on her narrow shoulders. She required a confident, experienced director with a singular vision to elicit a nuanced performance that’s bigger than the movie-of-the-week role as written. Instead, she has Cowperthwaite, wading into her first fiction feature and struggling with the limp noodle actress at the story’s center attempting a realism she cannot achieve. Unlike Isabelle Huppert or even Jessica Chastain who can use a flat unexpressive face to convey a depth of emotion, Mara comes across as more middle-class mopey than deeply broken, her difficulty connecting with man or beast more annoying than sympathetic.

In strong support, with little to do, are Leavey’s fractured family members. Edie Falco plays Leavey’s grating mother who has apparently ruined her life by stepping out and setting up house with the grizzly best friend (Will Patton) of her broken-hearted husband (a rangy and affecting Bradley Whitford). One stand-out is Ramon Rodriguez as Matt Morales, a charming and approachable fellow Marine who wants to connect with Leavey but keeps getting shut down.

What makes the movie such a dog is that by the time Leavey finds redemption, connection and a sense of purpose – those qualities that originally made her such a great newspaper story – she’s long since sacrificed any connection to the audience. Oh, Lassie, go home!