If “Small Engine Repair” seems like a David Mamet movie based on a play, it’s because “Small Engine Repair” is a David Mamet-esque film based on a play – and in the hands of writer-director-star John Pollono, it’s a searing, raw and provocative viewing experience that might leave some viewers shaken due to the intense content but never comes across as exploitative. It is a darkly funny, authentic and unforgettable work.
Pollono is best known for his roles in “Mob City” and “This Is Us,” but he’s also an accomplished playwright and screenwriter. He wrote and starred in the stage production of “Small Engine Repair” about 10 years ago, and the film adaptation is finally here, starring Pollono and the magnetic Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead,” “The Punisher”) reprising their roles, and formidable talents such as Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Jordana Spiro (“Ozark”) and young actors Ciara Bravo and Spencer House round out the top-notch ensemble cast.
“Small Engine Repair” is about three lifelong friends in their 40s who talk tough, act tough, and are really tough — and often act like idiots, especially after a long night (or day) of drinking. These guys may not know the definition of toxic masculinity, but they’ve been skirting the boundaries of this world for most of their lives. Pollono is a commanding screen presence as Frank Romanoski, the most alpha of these three alpha males, who has done time in prison and works hard to control his temper and would be the first to tell you he basically did a good thing in his life. , and it’s raising his 18-year-old daughter, Crystal (Bravo), who has the rude swagger of her dad and friends, but is also a bright, lovable, sweet girl who will soon be heading off to college. Bernthal’s macho lothario Terrance Swaino and Whigham’s undersized and relatively sensitive Packie Hanrahan have always been there for Crystal, while Crystal’s party mom Karen (Spiro) has been AWOL for most of Crystal’s life.
Writer-director Pollono has a keen ear for dialogue and a good eye for working-class visuals, and he’s confident in his material to let “Small Engine Repair” slowly build toward its ultimate destination. The first half of the film is about establishing the relationship dynamic between Frank, Swaino, and Packie, who alternate between toasting, sharing stories, and getting into arguments so heated they won’t talk to each other for months. When these guys go to a bar, you know there’s a 50% chance they’ll have a fight with locals – or each other. Meanwhile, Karen has decided to go back into Crystal’s life and take her for a night on the town, and let’s just say it doesn’t end in tender times and reconciliation.
The dramatic stakes rise dramatically when Frank, Swaino and Packie reunite at Frank’s repair shop for a night of beers, whiskey, steaks and bonding. Frank tells the boys that he recently played basketball with a college student named Chad (House), and Chad will stop by to drop off some drugs so they can kick into high gear the night. Chad pulls up in a Mercedes Wagon that was paid for by his father, a wealthy and powerful lawyer, and within minutes of arriving we can see this guy is the prototypical “brother”, from his haircut and his attire to her casual attitude. the story he tells… well, we don’t want to give away any of that story except to say that this is the first indication that Chad doesn’t have a clue why he was really invited to the repair shop.
Before the night is over, crimes will be committed and loyalties will be tested, and “Small Engine Repair” will delve into raw, rough and controversial subject matter. (Sometimes even the characters acknowledge the gruesome and questionable nature of their actions.) In less skilled hands, this might have come across as cynical and manipulative material, but Pollono is such a skilled blacksmith and the cast is so universally excellent,” Small Engine Repair” becomes a visual experience that you won’t get rid of easily, not today and not for a long time.