Film Review: Small Engine Repair
Small Engine Repair
Director: John Pollono
In Theaters 09.10
There are only a handful of stars who can really be credited with discovering themselves. These days, it’s more likely to happen through YouTube or TikTok than in the old-school way that Sylvestor Stallone or Matt Damon did it: writing their own films and getting them made by sheer force of will. But Small Engine Repair is old-school in the best sense of the term, and writer-director-actor John Pollono is a monumental discovery on par with those legends.
In Small Engine Repair, Pollono plays Frankie Romanoski, a single father with a checkered past and anger management issues. He lives in the small, dreary township of Manchester, New Hampshire, or “Manch Vegas,” as it is derisively known among the locals. When Frankie was incarcerated years ago, his two best friends, Swaino (Jon Bernthal, The Punisher, Ford v. Ferrari) and Packie (Shea Wigham, Silver Linings Playbook, Joker) took care of his daughter for him. The three are united by their love of the Red Sox, rowdy bars and their girl, Crystal (Ciara Bravo), who is now a high school graduate looking at colleges. The only thing that tends to come between Frankie and his friends is his ex, Karen (Jordana Sprio, Blindspot), the woman who abandoned him and Crystal.
When Karen comes back into town looking to reconnect with her daughter, the men have an angry disagreement and stop hanging out together. But three weeks later, Frankie asks his pals to a whiskey-fueled evening, where he has invited a third guest: Chad (Spencer House, Space Force, Teenage Bounty Hunters), a young man who believes he is there to sell some drugs. It turns out that he has been brought to the party for a much darker purpose. What starts out as a night of revelry takes a shocking turn, and Swaino and Packie are forced to decide whether to join their childhood friend in actions that would alter all of their lives, and even who they are, forever.
Small Engine Repair was an award-winning play before it was a film, and both Pollono and Bernthal reprise their roles from the original 2011 cast. Pollono directs with precise pacing, taking enough time to introduce the characters and create a strong attachment to them, but never wasting a moment before throwing them into that dark and brutal night. The editing by David Moritz (Jerry Maguire, Rushmore) and Christopher Robin Bell (Outlaws and Angels) is Oscar-worthy, and the script is what its characters would describe as “wicked smart.” It is full of impeccably written exposition—telling us what we need to know without ever spoon-feeding or talking down to the audience—and twists and turns that happen organically but are never telegraphed in advance.
The acting is top-level. The ever reliable Bernthal commands the screen, Bravo proves that the impression she made in Cherry was no fluke, and Whigham gives what may be a career-best performance. But it’s Pollono’s show, and he smolders with the power of a Pacino or De Niro in their prime, bringing a dynamic intensity that wraps around a core of human emotion, guilt and frailty that it left me marveling at the fact that I’d never heard of this incredible actor before.
The dialogue is every bit as harsh and profane as you’d expect from a film about three lower-middle-class buddies in New England who feel a need to outdo each other on machismo. Every word serves the characters and story, which explores brotherhood, class struggle, love, regret and the devastating effects of toxic masculinity.
Small Engine Repair is a remarkable film—a darkly comedic, nail-bitingly tense and, at times, emotional work that defies easy categorization—establishing its jack-of-all-trades creator as a towering talent, and one to keep a close eye on. While it may mark Pollono’s first starring role on the big screen, it’s unlikely that it will be his last. –Patrick Gibbs