‘Small Engine Repair’ is a black comedy-drama written and directed by John Pollono based on his 2011 one-act play of the same name. This flick was scheduled for release in March 2020; however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it debuted on September 10, 2021. Pollono and Jon Bernthal reprise their roles from the original production, and Shea Whigham and Spencer House embody Packie and Chad, respectively. However, Michael Redfield and Josh Helman, who were both in the original, now portray new characters in the film.
This film is basically about toxic masculinity, the men who advocate for this kind of culture, and how their behavior and beliefs affect the women around them. The dialogue is expertly written, engaging, and runs deep, which helps carry through the film until the end. The message in the feature is apparent. However, it doesn’t experience that full-blown take-off and is splintered in its pacing, with a twisted turn that doesn’t really land home.
‘Small Engine Repair’ is set in Manch Vegas, a disparaging nickname for Manchester, New Hampshire, and follows the story of Frank Romanoski, a role taken by Pollono, a volatile ex-convict and a recovering alcoholic who has spent the last ten years trying to put his life back together. He is now running a repair shop and frequently hangs out with his close acquaintances Terrance Swaino the smooth ladies man portrayed by Jon Bernthal, and Packie Hanrahan, the social media addict a role played by Shea Whigham. The three spend their time on petty talk, telling jokes, and trying to understand how digital social networks function, especially Instagram. They gel seamlessly, and their obvious chemistry is definitely what holds the film together. Their brotherhood and friendship are made stronger by their adoration for Franks’s teenage daughter Crystal, a role played by Ciara Bravo, who, among other things, has an intricate past with her mother and Frank’s estranged ex-wife Karen, a part by Jordana Spiro, who has recently reappeared after being out of her daughter’s life for years.
Frank is struggling to make ends meet and take care of his little girl, who is on the road to make him and his friends really proud after earning a place in a prestigious university. Their lives have always been engulfed in a scaringly dark cloud, and with this new development, there is great hope for a light finally shining into their lives. However, the opposite happens when this admirable family comes face to face with a self-entitled drug dealer named Chad, played by Spencer House, which automatically changes the tone and direction of the narrative. Even though this movie is packed with lots of testosterone and discussions following that direction, it takes its sweet time getting into the heart of the story, edging its way sluggishly. While the dark material worked to a significant degree on stage, it feels a bit forced and unnatural in the film.
Pollono does exceptionally well with the dialogue as in the adaptation, what were basically tales in the play are now turned into visual storytelling for the film. For instance, Pollono pulls away from the scenes of Swaino narrating his wild tales of picking women from bars to offering flashbacks in the film that show these events. There is also another flashback of Crystal’s childhood, and while they are meant to add layers to a film that relies heavily on the narrative, they are often abrupt and disruptive to the seamless flow of the storyline. One part worth mentioning is that the film exhibits its best when the trio is poking fun at each other and telling stories. Their performances advance as they smoothly play off of each other, their verbal jabs laying down the groundwork for the film.
As mentioned earlier, this title is testosterone-fueled, and Pollono definitely has a lot to say about how male chauvinism influences male friendships. Many of the jokes they throw around are about women who are simultaneously objectified, with the intention of praising male domination while dismissing their female counterparts and their role in society, without stopping to think how their perception and action affect their beloved Crystal. However, ‘Small Engine Repair’ does an admirable job taking to task Frank and his pals’ involvement in the very traits they try to kill in dimwits like the affluent and highly toxic drug peddler Chad.
The characters are pretty well executed, with Pollono and Bernthal delivering utterly brilliant and subtle performances that never lean towards stereotypes nor feel condescending. The newcomer to the film Whigham is quite a revelation as the chattery, socially inept Packie whose internet skills come in handy. The lead female characters, too, are effectively impressive, with Bravo being the daughter who unwittingly sets the ball rolling and Spiro injecting intriguing bouts of energy every time she appears on the screen.
When Chad comes into play in the film, it is then when the weak points of the film really begin to manifest. In an attempt to drive home a seemingly crucial point, the doting father hatches a violet plan to punish Chad by using sadistic force to scare him, a point that gets too heavy-handed in its approach. In its final scene, the dark and distorted aspect is bleak and horrendously over the top, changing the dark comedic nature of the film and sending it into a purely sadistic dominion.
Compared to the stage version, Pollono made a few adjustments for the screen version. The characters of Crystal and Karen were merely mentioned in the play but appear in the flesh in the film, which helps in diffusing the testosterone-filled environment. Also, on stage, the narrative consisted entirely of the friends’ reunion in the garage. In an attempt to open up the space for the film, Pollono added the bar fight scene and a series of other introductory scenes, which initially play out before reaching the meat of the story.
All the same, ‘Small Engine Repair’ comes to a close on a pretty hopeful note; however, it still feels a bit empty looking back at where it has come from. It is that kind of film that never completely shakes off its staginess, one in which one expects the performers to give bows as the final credits run but still, it is a darkly funny, authentic, and unforgettable piece of work.