October 1st, 2021
MOVIE: SMALL ENGINE REPAIR
STARRING: JOHN POLLONO, JON BERNTHAL, SHEA WHIGHAM, CIARA BRAVO
DIRECTED BY: JOHN POLLONO
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
Small Engine Repair was a successful off-Broadway play for writer, director, and lead actor John Pollono and having it turned into a movie was probably the last thing he ever thought could have happened, but here it is taking that big leap. What’s more fascinating, and not always the way it goes, but Small Engine Repair feels better suited for the screen than the stage, something that is typically the other way around. It’s not that the dialogue isn’t sharp or the performances can’t be strong on the stage as well, but the tone here is palpable, connecting the comradery of long time friends, and then taking an unexpected turn, making it even more screen worthy. The three leads are Pollono, Jon Bernthal, and Shea Whigham, reviving their roles for the stage, and playing three friends that have been there for one another. From drunken nights, abusive fathers, spending time in prison, being a single parent, and staying friends through it all. That seems to be the various bullet points about Small Engine Repair, where we spend a night with three best friends, and the outcome is unpredictable in a wildly entertaining fashion.
The three characters are Frank (Pollono), Swaino (Bernthal), and Packie (Whigham), living in the tiny town of Manchester, Massachusetts, where these blue-collar guys work in Frank’s engine repair shop, and tell the same old stories over a couple beers. The narrative starts in the past, where Frank is getting out of prison and Swaino and Packie throw a party where we see the start of Frank taking care of his little daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). Fast-forward and Crystal is in high school, with hopes to go to college, and the three brothers from other mothers could not be prouder of the little girl they’ve helped raise. Since prison, Frank has given up smoking and drinking, but one random night out, Swaino starts a fight with Packie and it leads to Frank beating a guy up badly and for five months the friends don’t talk again. It’s when we catch back up after this night where Small Engine Repair builds, as Frank plans a night of drinking, drugs, and MMA fights on the TV, hoping to rekindle the friendship that has fallen apart- but there’s another motive at hand. They talk, laugh, and catch up, but even more difficult situations are confronted on this one dark night.
It’s obvious that all three actors have been playing these characters from the start, not just because the dialogue suits them, or because they embody the roles, but because all three actors have a great chemistry together. It became easy for me to see myself in them, obviously not the prison stuff, but I too have had friendships since I was a kid, and living vicariously through the sharp barbs thrown at one another, harsh teasing, and laughs over drinks feels real to me. The connection between lifelong friends can be beautiful, romantic, and even heartbreaking when the time spent isn’t healthy. And at times it’s hard to say who is giving the better performance here. Bernthal is the louder, bombastic character, while Pollono is the reserved type you respect, but it’s Whigham who delivers the best work. His Packie character seems a bit slow, but he’s incredibly smart about social media or other things one would never expect, and when the writing allows it, he has the gentle heart that makes you believe in a true friend that’s grateful for his pals. Either way, it’s the trio of performances that keeps our attention from the start.
Pollono ties all of their performances with the direction, often keeping the three characters boxed in rooms or standing tightly next to a burning fire to keep warm. He also rotates between past and present, mixes in a bit of montage to display the passing of a good time, and for the third act he even gives a look into the minds of characters to see how they see certain situations. It’s that expansion outside the repair shop and outside the bars that makes Small Engine Repair cinematic- and better for it too. It would be impossible to gather the sense of humor and the energy without the expansion. Where films such as Fences or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom can work with larger performances in singular locations, there’s not a lot of that going on in Small Engine Repair. There’s a need to show the entire world these characters are living in.
The third act of Small Engine Repair is where things take a massive left turn, something that surprised me, did not always work, and certainly leaves a yucky feeling in my stomach, but it’s also the way Pollono propels Small Engine Repair across the finish line. There’s something to be said about the way these characters talk, how they’re stuck in the past, and how masculinity this way can’t continue as well. But, it ultimately finds themes about family and protecting the ones you love, the struggles of being a single parent, and how it’s important to have friends behind you when needed most. Small Engine Repair may seem like a movie of simple minds but it’s actually just an honest movie with a big bleeding heart.
SMALL ENGINE REPAIR IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS OCTOBER 1ST AND AVAILABLE ON DEMAND
Written by: Leo Brady