Review: 'Small Engine Repair' blows a gasket after a smooth start out-of-the-gate
"Small Engine Repair" is a small film that you root for. The camaraderie between the three main actors is the definition of chemistry, and you'll find yourself laughing and caring for these bums in surprising ways.
But with a quick jump out of the gate and a slowly accelerating pace that will have you easily accepting your invitation to ride, "Small Engine Repair" nearly runs itself off the road as it hits a late patch of dark ice...however it ends up staying on track somehow, due to the three red-hot performances steering the wheel.
"Small Engine Repair" was actually an award-winning stage production, written and created by John Pollono. Pollono adapts his own work to the screen, reprising his lead role from the play as the hot-headed former convict and loving dad, Frank Romanowski. His two best friends, the charismatic loud-mouth "Swaino" (Jon Bernthal) and the awkward loner "Packie" (Shea Whigham) fill out quite the trio of characters, both of whom love Frank's teenage daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) as if she was their own daughter...heck, they basically raised her as a child while Frank was carrying out his prison sentence.
Frank was known for his explosive anger, but post-prison Frank seems like a man reborn. He's quiet and a bit reserved, and is trying to be the best father that he now can, even though Crystal is at an age where her rebellious side is in full-swing. Frank's ex and Crystal's mom, Karen (Jordana Spiro) is still a bit of a deadbeat, but she continues to play an important role in Crystal's life.
After Frank loses his cool and the three friends have a falling out, some time passes. Frank invites them both - unknowingly to the other - to his small engine repair shop for reasons that are eventually revealed...that's when the movie takes a hard-left turn, and becomes a dark and violent movie that in some ways feels alien from the first half.
A large character in "Small Engine Repair" is the city itself where the film takes place. Manchester, New Hampshire - referred to sarcastically as "Manch-Vegas" is a blue collar town heavily influenced by nearby Boston. All of the actors have thick Bostonian accents, and the adjective "wicked" is uttered a wicked amount of times. The love between them is delivered in the form of non-stop insults, and there aren't too many thoughts that enter the head that don't leave via the mouth.
These interchanges create some wicked-funny scenes and bits of dialogue, and the chemistry between Pollono, Bernthal and Whigham drives the whole thing. Bernthal (who also produced this film) was the original Swaino from the play, so it's understandable that Pollono and Bernthal light-up the screen with palpable energy. Whigham is new to the role, but makes it his own...while all of these actors are tremendous, Whigham is outstanding. Having made his living as an unselfish character actor, I would love for his contribution in this film to score some awards-season love...his Packie is definitely one of the most memorable characters committed to screen in 2021.
As the film goes from light to dark though, that's where "Small Engine Repair" starts to stutter. The transition isn't all that smooth, and it even becomes a bit sadistic. We get that these men would do anything for Crystal, and for each other, but it all ends up being a bit much. It also suffers from an ailment that most stage-to-screen adaptations suffer from, which is that it is mostly unable to break-out of its one-room setting...this feels very much like a stage play. Save for a scene or two at the beginning and some unneeded flashback sequences, the drama doesn't really expand outside of the walls of the dim garage. This movie feels (and is) like an independent film, but one that lacks any real cinematic style.
Even still, Pollono has created a rare film that captures lifelong friends, warts and all, as their bonds are tested to the limits. The beauty of their relationships are that we all know a Frank, a Swaino, a Packie, and even though these familiar characters can at times drive you crazy, they're always family.
"Small Engine Repair" is a blast of energy, thrown off course the further down the road it goes. But when Pollono, Bernthal and Whigham all put their feet on the gas, it's worth just leaning back and enjoying the ride.
Genre: Comedy, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
Starring: John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Ciara Bravo, Jordana Spiro, Spencer House.
Written and Directed by John Pollono (feature-film debut).
"Small Engine Repair" is in theaters on Friday, September 10th, 2021.
Watch interviews with John Pollono, Shea Whigham and Jon Bernthal below:
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