Small Engine Repair, 2021.
Directed by John Pollono.
Starring Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Ciara Bravo, John Pollono, Spencer House, Jordana Spiro, Josh Helman and Jay Bulger.
Frankie (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) have known each other a lifetime. Frankie’s daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) makes that bond stronger than blood, meaning there is nothing they wouldn’t do for her.
Small Engine Repair, adapted from the stage play by John Pollono, hits homes on a number of levels. For a majority of this film audiences are treated to some densely written character work, aided and abetted by a seasoned cast. Both John Pollono and Jon Bernthal performed in the original play, while Shea Whigham proves to be a valuable addition as the third member of their group.
Frankie, Swaino and Packie are childhood friends who spend a lot of time together. Between the small engine repair shop and local bars they remain inseparable. However, what binds them together more than that is Frankie’s daughter Crystal. A role in which Ciara Bravo proves to be a revelation opposite her older co-stars, as she delivers an exceptionally rounded performance of genuine pathos.
Both innocently savvy and capable of offering up a gutter mouthed comeback with flare, she proves to be the backbone of this movie. She is fathered by all three leads simultaneously, which gives Small Engine Repair a genuinely familial feel. However, of her on screen family it is the dynamic between Shea Whigham and Jon Bernthal which resonates most strongly.
Packie and Swaino are closer than brothers both repelled and conjoined in equal measure. This constant push and pull dynamic gives situations substance, turning scenes on a dime and drift, as childhood one-upmanship constantly influences mood. In opposition to this is John Pollono’s Frankie, who exudes anger, resignation and remorse for past transgressions.
Small Engine Repair opens on his release from prison for an undisclosed crime told in flashback. It is a poignant and understated way to introduce your principal cast, which carries throughout the film. For a majority of its running time things seems to be treading water, as writer director John Pollono spends time world building. Moments of pathos are tinged with the aftermath of violent recollections, as audiences are slowly given access to every intimate moment. Unfortunately, this goes on a little too long and distracts from some genuinely excellent performances.
Jon Bernthal’s Swaino is imbued with an innate gravitas seeing him switch between peacemaker and instigator, while Shea Whigham’s Packie is laced with a subtle weakness and childlike transparency. Between the four leading roles which weave their spell over two hours, Small Engine Repair demands an emotional investment. One that pays dividends in the last thirty minutes as events begin unravelling.
In terms of tonal shifts this turnaround comes from left field, gets uncomfortably under the skin and stays there. Incorporating elements of 44 Inch Chest, Shallow Grave and Prisoners, Small Engine Repair gets really dark really quickly. In that final half hour this becomes an ethical minefield with social media sideswipes, as online repercussions come back to haunt all concerned. That audiences will never see it coming adds to the inherent brutality of what follows, leaving a retinal scar on those who bear witness.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★