John Pollono writes, directs, and co-stars in “Small Engine Repair,” the film adaptation of his 2011 one act play of the same name. There’s a highly personalized feel to this project, and Pollono’s approach is the main reason why. Although the source material was penned a decade ago, it’s a little disheartening how relevant the subject matter (including heavy themes of bullying, the power of social media, and toxic masculinity) still is in present day.
Ex-con Frank (Pollono) has a wicked temper. It gets him in trouble sometimes, but his lifelong friends Packie (Shea Whigham) and Swaino (Jon Bernthal) always have his back. They love to do the usual things that most blue collar buddies like to do in New England: drink whiskey, smoke, cheer on the Red Sox, and hang out in dive bars. The guys have watched Frank’s now college-bound daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) grow up, and they’ve become her surrogate family. It’s clear they care for her more than her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro), who left years ago, does. One night Frank invites them over to his repair shop under mysterious circumstances to ask them to help with a favor on behalf of the young woman. After Frank’s young drug dealer Chad (Spencer House), a rich, spoiled, preppy jock, arrives at the garage, things turn dark. Very dark. Things quickly get out of control as friendship and loyalties are tested to the brink.
The film is a provocative and profane study on brotherhood, masculinity, violence, class warfare, and the rage that stems from them all. Pollono’s script dissects the complexities of male friendships through relatable insight. It’s darkly comedic too, with plenty of black humor, making this trio of childhood friends likeable even when they are at their worst.
The action is all set in Frank’s garage, but the movie has a lot of filler to round out the feature film’s runtime. Since it’s based on a stage play, the movie is very talky. A good chunk of the verbal padding happens early on, with unnecessary scenes of the guys drinking beer, firing insults at each other, and even engaging in a little physical pushing and shoving. These conversations aren’t all that interesting, but thankfully the film picks up steam after the tacked-on prologue.
As with many stage to screen adaptations, the film’s greatest strength is the writing, especially Pollono’s knack for authentic dialogue. There are some moments of true brilliance in his effective storytelling, including a scene about a childhood baseball game with the boys’ fathers that I won’t soon forget. But there’s also a plot twist that feels very contrived and silly, although it will surely deliver a jolt to the audience.
The performances are terrific, especially Pollono’s. He’s physically perfect to play hot-tempered Frank, with his strong, hulking demeanor and quiet intensity. You’ll believe he’s capable of beating someone to death with his bare hands. The same goes for the supporting turns from all of the cast. Everyone is well-suited to their roles, and you can feel their commitment to and love for the project.
Great stories are based in truth and personal experience, and “Small Engine Repair” has so much to appreciate.