“Small Engine Repair” fires on all cylinders with breathtaking performances and nuanced thematic development
Scotch, steaks, and a small-engine repair shop - the perfect recipe for an evening of male comradery and boyish banter. When single-father Frankie (John Pollono) invites two of his lifelong buddies to watch a pay-per-view fight in his shop, his pals have no idea that he’s actually recruiting them for his mad and dangerous plan to help his daughter, Crystal (Ciara Bravo). John Pollono’s deceptively simple Small Engine Repair is packed with tension and suspense, and it provides a subtle yet thorough investigation of modern masculinity. Pollono wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which is based on his award-winning play of the same name. Small Engine Repair was accepted to the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but the release was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting this Friday, September 10, 2021, you can catch this pleasantly surprising dark comedy / thriller on the big screen.
Small Engine Repair isn’t your typical all-American feel-good dude movie, although it certainly starts out that way. The film begins in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is ironically nicknamed “Manch-Vegas,” on an overcast and melancholy day. A voice-over phone call between Frankie and one of his buddies, Swaino (Jon Bernthal), plays over a shot of the small town’s industrial landscape. Frankie is coming home from jail, presumably after one of his uncontrolled fits of range, and he’s ready to be a better father for Crystal. As a soothing guitar melody plays and snow falls gently from a grey sky, the opening scene sets the stage for a good old-fashioned story about hard-working Americans, family values, and redemption. But when Frankie returns home and reaches out to take Crystal from Swaino’s arms, she begins crying in protest. Rather than force his daughter to come to him, Frankie steps back and allows Crystal to stay with Swaino, muttering “I get it” under his breath. Small Engine Repair doesn’t tell a story where parental mistakes and toxic masculinity are forgiven with a teary-eyed conversation and a hug. From the outset, it’s clear that this story will confront the issue of toxic masculinity head-on, and it’s not going to let Frankie gloss over his mistakes with a sweet little daddy/daughter moment.
Fast forward several years. Crystal is a senior in high school, and Frankie, Swaino, and Packie (Shea Whigham) are still best friends. At first, it seems like their lives have leveled out a bit, but the dysfunctional gang’s Christmas festivities are filled with abrupt outbursts and melodramatic mood changes that point to their underlying problems. Frankie’s anger issues return in full force when Crystal’s mostly absent mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro), shows up to take her daughter on a holiday shopping spree. As with many stage-to-screen adaptations, Small Engine Repair has a distinctive three-act structure - and this first act establishes the tiresome cycle of angry outbursts and jail time that define Frankie’s life. And yet, he isn’t the world’s worst father. He stands out as a good and loving dad who works hard to give Crystal the best possible life. After Frankie and his buddies have a major falling out, the film moves on to its second act. Frankie invites Swaino and Packie over to his shop to make amends. However, as they tear down emotional walls with the help of some scotch and Frankie’s infamous bong, the story takes a bizarre turn. A mysterious stranger arrives, marking the start of the film’s final act, and the tension bubbles over in a raw and gory showdown.
Small Engine Repair goes through several genre shifts, making its way from family drama to revenge thriller to dark comedy. What starts out as a feel-good American story about blue-collar perseverance transforms into a psychologically twisted masculine fantasy. Although it takes a while for the movie to get to “the point,” not a second of the story goes to waste. The three-act structure and dramatic genre shifts aren’t exactly what audiences might expect, but in the end, they make all the difference. Pollono uses this structure to develop the themes of the story gradually and drop hints about the brewing conflict. Rather than creating a straightforward PSA about the dangers of toxic masculinity, Pollono earns the audience’s attention with a wholesome, heartfelt story that slowly introduces more complex ideas. By juxtaposing the feel-good vibes of the first act with the bloodbath of the third, Pollono highlights the hypocrisy of toxic masculinity and the inherent problems of the American dream. The film progresses from straightforward to bizarre, moving toward an outlandish but fitting conclusion that adds meaning to all the casual male bravado and locker room talk that make up most of the dialogue.
Small Engine Repair isn’t the kind of movie that throws around demeaning misogynist language just to set the mood. Every word of the fast-moving dialogue serves a purpose: to examine the irony of traditional masculinity. The film also touches on homophobia and economic disparity, but it doesn’t box up these themes into neat little nuggets of social justice that will make a slacktivist audience feel good. The characters aren’t ultra-sympathetic poster children for the injustices of society, nor are they detestable villains who do everything wrong. Frankie, Swaino and Packie are multi-dimensional. At times we feel angry on their behalf, and at other times we can’t believe the things that come out of their mouths. It’s easy to feel like we’re on their side when they come up against privileged rich people who want to take advantage of them, but we also feel sick to our stomachs as we listen to them talk about their sexual exploits. Pollono doesn’t treat toxic masculinity, homophobia, and class inequality like straightforward issues. By creating three complex and troublesome main characters, he humanizes these issues and illustrates the difficulties of fixing systemic problems.
Small Engine Repair pulls through with a strong cast that makes its fast dialogue and sudden shifts in tone work. Pollono takes the lead as Frankie, creating a complex and realistic character whose anger issues, though inexcusable, make sense. Shea Whigham adds comedic relief through his interpretation of Packie, a slightly creepy, socially awkward, and childlike character who we can laugh at but also take seriously. Jon Bernthal uses all the cliches of toxic masculinity to his advantage, turning Swaino into a hubristic character who is both admirable and frustrating. As Crystal, Ciara Bravo is just as brash and independent as her three male counterparts, but at the same time, she’s believably sensitive. Jordana Spiro hams up the prodigal mother’s childlike irresponsibility - but in the blink of an eye, she breaks down those walls to reveal a badass mama bear who balances out the film’s masculine energy.
Small Engine Repair isn’t an easy or relaxing watch. It’s a suspenseful emotional rollercoaster, and the frequent mood shifts make it deeply unsettling. It’s uncomfortably comedic, and it puts the irony and hypocrisy of toxic masculinity on full display. At the same time, it questions those who would criticize toxic masculinity without fully understanding where it comes from. Small Engine Repair is in a class and genre of its own, and it doesn’t play by anyone’s rules.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."