Small Engine Repair, 2021.
Written and Directed by John Pollono.
Starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo, Ashlie Atkinson, Josh Helman, John Rothman, Jenna Lamia, Joshua Bitton, Shannon Esper, and Spencer House.
Events spin wildly out of control when three lifelong friends agree to do a favor on behalf of the brash young woman they all adore.
Small Engine Repair is the kind of non-politically correct affair certain groups of people scream up and down could never get made today. Well, it’s here (director John Pollono is also adapting his award-winning stageplay), and it might be controversial to say, but the movie is all the more grounded, authentic, and socially important for throwing that caution of sensitivity to the wind. Simultaneously, I don’t think that will stop a good amount of viewers and critics from feeling uncomfortable and uneasy regarding what transpires, which would be a shame considering there is no malicious intent here. Instead, the lack of politically correct filters and events are handled somewhere between bombastic and delicate (the plot, especially including the twists and turns, are akin to navigating a minefield in terms of balancing sensitive topics with more significant real-world implications alongside riveting small-scale complex character drama) to drive home a story that’s both surface-level suspenseful and socially profound.
If that alone generates curiosity, it’s even more paramount to go into Small Engine Repair knowing as little as possible. However, it can be said that the narrative involves a problematic father named Frank Romanowski (John Pollono also in the starring role, pulling triple duty on the filmmaking process) that was sent away to jail when his daughter Crystal was young, was released a little bit later going on to pull himself together as much as he could to raise her alongside his childhood best friends Terrance Swaino and Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan (Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham, lending strong camaraderie that’s sincere to blue-collar working life and the setting of a lower-income area of New Hampshire, that it feels like these three actors may as well be real childhood friends or brothers).
Following this quick prologue (one of my only gripes is that since John Pollono is no longer restricted to the confines of a stage play, the opportunity should have been taken to show a bit more of the past and Crystal’s life experiences in general), the film flashes forward roughly ten years later. Frank and Crystal (now played by Cherry‘s Ciara Bravo, turning in an excellent performance able to match the immature and boisterous energy of the childish men around her) still get into the occasional argument (she really wants to go to college even if it might not be in the cards financially), but unmistakably have an inseparable bond. She’s skilled at trading loving insults just as much as the three fatherly guardians of her life do to each other (jokes that are sometimes casually insensitive but in good fun, something I don’t necessarily condone but admit to laughing at here due to the context and brilliant comedic delivery), and simply has a good heart that could believably convince the guys that growing up to provide for her is more important than anything else.
There are also glimpses of Crystal’s mother, Karen Delgado (Jordana Spiro), someone with demons of her own to work on. Unfortunately, whenever Crystal spends time with her mom, Frank can seem a little lost, going along with his friends for some heavy bar drinking, resulting in a wild fistfight. In one particular instance, Swaino and Packie trade barbs while trying to pick up women that hit a little too close to home for the latter, triggering a lengthy breakup between the friends.
Without saying how much time passes, Frank stages an intervention to get the boys back together (amusingly, telling some incredibly dark lies to get everyone in the same room, which happens to be the titular auto repair shop put together to fund Crystal’s college tuition over time). They share some laughs (this time lowering their guards and discussing the hurt insensitive jokes can inflict), have some drinks while telling some stories (there is a look into a harsh upbringing that further explains why they are the way they are), and contact a drug dealer (Spencer House) to bring some molly. There’s also an elephant in the room, so to speak, as one character discovers something one of them is doing behind everyone’s back. However, that’s nothing compared to the real reason everyone has been brought back together by Frank.
Again, it’s difficult to talk about what makes Small Engine Repair so special without blatantly spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that there’s a thoughtful expiration of generational divides, the consequences of Internet culture, dating in the age of social media, the toxicity of crazed sports fandom, and a cautionary advisory against revenge. Some will find the climax to be juvenile and homophobic, but that would be looking at the narrative from the wrong lens. So much of what transpires here has to be taken and re-contextualized through the inner workings of society, which are sometimes needlessly cruel and not always as progressive as we think. The fact that this play from 2011 still packs the same punch as it does in 2021 as a debut feature speaks volumes regarding the topicality at play here. If for some reason, you don’t care about any of that pressing social commentary, the story also flat-out rips with laughs and thrills until its shocking conclusion that is only just shock value if one refuses to think about it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com