Small Engine Repair Synopsis: Blue-collar childhood buddies Frank (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal), and Packie (Shea Whigham) – deeply bonded over Frank’s daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo), who they helped raise – meet off-hours one night in Frank’s out-of-the-way repair shop under cloudy circumstances that only Frank seems to have a handle on.
Digging into the crevices of the rustic New England Americana, John Pollono’s directorial debut Small Engine Repair takes an authentic look at a community that is near and dear to my heart (I have been a Massachusetts resident my whole life). Pollono, who co-wrote 2017’s criminally underrated Stronger, breathes vitality and surprising warmth into a chaotic tale of the region’s best and worst qualities.
Pollono deserves ample credit for defining a distinct sense of place. From cooking steaks amidst snowy conditions to the run-down appeals of their local bar, the director makes a concentrated effort to convey the essence of the working-class New England lifestyle. Pollono and Cinematographer Matt Mitchell craft a gritty presentation style that feels like an apt fit for our characters’ lunchpail sensibility, with the duo never beautifying the inherently mucky setting. Pollono’s deft touch within the potent dramatic scenes also helps to steadily guide the narrative through its whirlwind of twists and turns.
The dreary setting isn’t just an aesthetic, as Pollono fleshes out his lively world through thoughtful introspections. His script zeroes its sights on the delicate bond between the film’s overly-macho trio, finding a genuine camaraderie amidst the crassness and casual cruelty. That said, Small Engine Repair intelligently resists overly-glowing shmaltz, properly taking the characters to task for the toxic ways they cope with their environment. Whether it’s casual homophobia or a restless penchant for violence, I would not be shocked if critics dismissed the film for the character’s occasionally repugnant actions. For me, I enjoyed how openly flawed Pollono makes his characters, with his script allowing their warmth and callous anger to stand as an apt reflection of the setting’s cold-hard truths (I can’t tell you how many times I have met people like the grandstanding Swaino).
The spirited cast works wonders to sell these dynamics. Jon Bernthal imbues brash energy and squeamish vulnerability as Swaino – a brutish man who tries to conquer all through his sheer swagger. Shea Whigham is fittingly squirely as Packie, the intelligent heart of the group who remains loyal despite the constant belittlement. Pollono skillfully showcases Frank’s repressed anger, while Ciara Bravo brings much-needed warmth into her few scenes as Frank’s intelligent yet wise-cracking daughter.
Without revealing the many narrative surprises, the script doesn’t quite come together. I love Pollono’s ambition and emotionally challenging themes, including a third-act twist that takes his characters to surprisingly dire circumstances. However, an oversimplified final third reduces many of the potent ideas into a tidy bow. The clean conclusion undermines the character’s toxicity in favor of giving audiences a studio-approved ending that doesn’t feel entirely earned. It’s the one point where the film slips into Hollywoodized theatrics.
An uneven final third still doesn’t mask Small Engine Repair and its notable strengths. This is a diamond in the rough that I hope gets discovered upon release.
Small Engine Repair opens in theaters on September 10th.
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