First-time director John Pollono establishes himself as a filmmaker of potential with Small Engine Repair, now streaming on Hulu. Pollono moved from a handful of front-of-camera roles to scripting a Movie We Forgot Existed, Stronger (2017), to writing, directing and starring in this small-budget outing, which not only blends a few different tonal textures, but also coaxes perhaps the best performances we’ve yet to see from Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham.
The Gist: Manchester, New Hampshire is a working-class town where guys have Townie accents (you know, “wicked smahht” and that) and call each other slangy interactions of their real names. Frank Romanowski is Frankie (John Pollono), Terrence Swaino (Jon Bernthal) is just Swaino and Patrick Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) loses a couple consonants to become Packy, which is probably better than Patty. They have the non-blood brothers bond of guys who’ve been bustin’ each other’s balls since they were kids. Frankie is fresh out of jail, with a cast on his arm and stitches over his eye. Swaino and Packy took care of Frankie’s toddler daughter Crystal while he was in the clink, but when Frankie tries to take her in his arms, she cries and clings to Swaino’s shoulder. Frankie looks sad but his expression also tells us he knows the deal. Transitions are tough for kids. It’ll take a minute but she’ll come around.
She did. She had to. Now Crystal’s a teenager on the cusp of college, raised by her single dad. Her mom, Karen (Jordana Spiro), gives us the impression that she does a lot of things in excess, and has likely dropped in and out of her life. We settle in with Frankie and Crystal the evening after his temper got the best of him and he put his fist through the drywall. They argued about how she wants to go to UCLA, and he doesn’t want her to go to UCLA, surely for all the obvious reasons. But he comes around. He’s calm now, and sits her down. Just do it, he says. Just go to UCLA. We’ll figure it out. She’s ecstatic. Her future is bright.
On top of that, it’s Christmastime. Packy and Swaino come over for dinner. All three of these guys love Crystal to death. They’re kinda stuck in Manchester and she’s getting out and they’re all thrilled. Afterwards, Karen comes over to take Crystal shopping. She exchanges vulgar gestures and nasty banter with Packy and Swaino, who don’t like her for the mess she routinely makes of their best buddy’s life. Frankie is the mostly stable presence in the girl’s life, providing her a comfortable home and lots of love. He quit drinking, and takes Karen’s malarkey in stride. The majority of the time, he keeps his psychological pressure cooker on low. He hasn’t solved his problem, but he manages it, which is the way life works, isn’t it? Packy and Swaino talk him into going to the bar (“the bahhh”), where they’ll drink beer (“beeah”) and he’ll have a seltzer (“seltzah”). The evening goes to shit because, as always happens, Packy and Swaino get into a fight, which is the exact reason why Frankie doesn’t do this anymore. Karen shows up and throws accelerant on the fire and before you know it, Frankie is out of his mind, bashing a guy’s head against the bar.
Also before you know it, three months go by. In the fallout from the brawl, Packy, Swaino and Frankie are all estranged, but Frankie’s doing something about that. He makes up lies to get them to come to his small engine repair shop, telling Packy he has cancer and telling Swaino he hired some strippers. The fibbery doesn’t last and before you know it, they’re hugging it out. You gotta water-under-the-bridge these things and, let’s face it, Packy and Swaino probably aren’t mature enough to undam the river, and now in their 40s, they may never be. But there’s a “but” here, which you might have suspected was coming. In an earlier scene, Frankie hits the liquor store, red flag no. 1. He heavy-splurges on Johnnie Walker Blue, red flag no. 2. And when the guys get there, he pours it into three glasses. You think maybe he’s just celebrating, but it sure feels like there might be something else going on here.
Performance Worth Watching: You’ll love Whigham – a perennially underrated character actor – as a simple man who actually isn’t so simple, whose crude demeanor hides many layers, which emerge slowly and quietly as the story progresses.
Memorable Dialogue: Amidst all the crude, somewhat clever, sometimes funny repartee – mostly among dudes, always bursting with F-bombs – the most notable line is a simple one, when Frankie says, “I was wrong.”
Sex and Skin: Crude verbal descriptions of sexual encounters.
Our Take: Pollono somewhat ingeniously transitions Small Engine Repair from gritty blue-collar indie drama to bro-hangout comedy to skull-in-a-vise suspense thriller, using some good, solid character fodder to keep it from falling apart at the seams. Stylistically, the film is a rough, but workable stapling-together of David Gordon Green, Ben Affleck, Judd Apatow, Jeremy Saulnier and Quentin Tarantino, and its abrupt tonal shifts render it a bit structurally ramshackle. But it’s endearing, like an old muscle that goes from junk jalopy to badass machine when it’s pieced together out of different colored spare parts.
And credit Pollono for sending his vehicle down a winding road, cruising down straightaways and roaring through hairpin turns. The movie’s where-the-hell-is-this-going narrative keeps our eyes on the screen, at ease at times and uneasy at others. It delivers on its suspenseful promise in a reasonable, acceptable manner, reaching a conclusion that doesn’t quite have the gusto of many scenes before it. Pollono cracks open a can of worms and never really finds a way to put the lid back on, which is either sloppy or intriguing – or, more likely, both. He uses social media as a plot device and subtextual springboard, and toys with and subverts ideas about toxic masculinity that become more tangled and challenging the more we ponder them.
But the film’s best quality is the character work by its three leads, who embrace the qualities of their types for comedic effect, and transcend them for dramatic effect. Pollono carries an almost operatic conflict inside him, struggling with whether he wants to be a big man who kicks somebody’s ass, or the bigger man who restrains his apelike rage and does the right thing. Bernthal goes big as the ladies man with the slick Ducati and slicker hair, but shows some cracks in the facade, and Whigham is terrific as an eccentric weirdo who’s much smarter than he seems, and might be somewhere on the autism spectrum; these might be the best performances yet for those two veteran actors who are so frequently hemmed into small, stereotypical roles in bigger movies. These three actors truly keep the film’s engine revved and running.
Our Call: STREAM IT. To paraphrase that guy in that one space movie, you’ll find Small Engine Repair is full of surprises.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.