Small Engine Repair

Frank (writer/director John Pollono (writer, "Stronger")), Packie (Shea Whigham) and Swaino (Jon Bernthal) have been friends since childhood in Manchester, NH, their bond intensified with their shared love of single dad Frank’s now college-bound daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo, "Cherry").  But when Swaino and Packie convince violence-prone Frank to head out to a bar to distract him from Crystal’s visit with his loathed ex, Karen (Jordana Spiro, Netflix's 'Fear Street' trilogy), they start a bar fight and Frank’s had enough.  Three months later, though, he sends out an olive branch with a secret agenda for them all to meet at his shop “Small Engine Repair.”

Laura's Review: B-

Pollono proved he had a feel for working class New Englanders in “Stronger,” and that talent is confirmed in his directorial debut adapting his award winning play where his three hard-partying buddies of varying intelligence show affection by trading insults.   As with any trio of friends, there are generally two who dominate and in this case those two are Frank and Swaino.   Packie, who lives with his grandmother, is generally a step or two behind, and yet his childish barbs cause Swaino outsized annoyance, leading to that bar brawl when they sideline Swaino’s come-ons.  While Frank’s quit smoking and boozing, Karen doesn’t even make it to dinner with her daughter without getting smashed, yet Crystal defends her.

But while Pollono is adept at drawing his male characters, he tips his hand too strongly with his plot developments, draining all surprise from what should be a shocking turn of events.  What he leaves us with is a strong, regional character study that explodes into violence all too easy to see coming before wrapping with forgiveness Frank hasn’t earned, particularly from friends called upon to choose either culpability or betrayal.  His female characters are underwritten, his daughter and her mother leaning too far into Madonna/whore territory.           

The film opens with a flashback introduction, Crystal as a toddler being returned to Frank by Swaino and Packie in ambiguous circumstances, Frank’s forehead bruised, Crystal none too happy.  Years later, the four letter words fly at a humble celebratory Christmas meal where Crystal announces to the three men that she’s been accepted at her college of choice, something dad accepted grudgingly as it puts her closer to Karen than him.    Later, after the rift when the boys gather at Frank’s shop, the first red flag is the pack of Marlboros Frank takes out of his pocket.  He’s also splurged on a bottle of Blue Label and indulges.  Swaino tells him all his problems stem from Karen and his violent temper.  Frank doesn’t like to hear this obviously truthful assessment, but is seemingly determined to party, grilling steaks and informing the boys that a kid from Northeastern he plays basketball with (Spencer House) is swinging by with some Molly.

The three principals cannot be faulted, each fleshing out his ‘type’ as a guy from a working class neighborhood, Pollono the most responsible adult, ladies man Bernthal the annoying instigator and Whigham the intellectually challenged one.  But the women are less well drawn, Spiro morphing from obnoxious drunk to sober avenger, Bravo a foul mouthed object of affection.  Considering that the film is comprised of only three locations and a couple of exterior shots, Pollono has achieved a strong sense of place, the passage of time indicated by a daughter grown up and a pit bull grown old.  “Small Engine Repair” packs some punches, but they don’t land as strongly when you can see them coming.

Robin's Review: B+

Ex-con Frank and his two best buddies, Terrance (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Wigham), absolutely adore Crystal (Ciara Brava), Frank’s teenage daughter. She gives as good as she gets from her three “dads” and matches them, good-naturedly, swear for swear. Then, something bad happens and the three friends must join together to protect their girl in “Small Engine Repair.”

As I watched writer-director John Pollono’s debut feature (adapted from his stage play), I was reminded strongly of John Ford’s “3 Godfathers (1948),” where three ruthless outlaws save a baby left orphaned and helpless in a vast, sun-scorched desert. “Small Engine Repair” is not a modern day “3 Godfathers,” but the spirit of the three BFFs and their love for Crystal has the same paternal feel.

Pollono’s blue-collar based tale takes its turn when we learn about the bad thing. I am not going into that but it is the catalyst for the tensions that build when Frank invites his buddies over to get drunk and stoned. (Before the turn, Frank did not drink and smoke, mainly because of Crystal.)

While they party, Frank gets a call and invites a younger friend, Chad (Spencer House), to join them, something not consistent with the host. Chad’s arrival and things he says triggers something in Crystal’s dad and violence ensues. The twist the story takes at this point brings it all together as the dads do what they have to protect Crystal.

The story of family, friends and love does not follow conventional paths as you get to know this extended clan, especially before the turn, when Crystal’s mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro), comes to town to see her daughter. Karen, divorced from Frank, is her own woman and she lets everyone know it. This plays out very well after she learns of the story twist and her maternal instincts kick in.

At its heart, “Small Engine Repair” is a father-daughter story where the “father” part is plural. The cast is first rate across the board and there is a real chemistry among them all. It is an ensemble film in the truest sense and every player is a 3-D person. The dialog and accents ring true – it is set in southern New Hampshire and, even with the close-quarters sets, it feels like a rural New England locale.

If I had to pick one actor/character out of the fine cast as the “best” in the film, it would have to be Ciara Bravo as Crystal. The young actor stands tall with the veteran cast and gives a full, sincere and smart performance. This is pretty good considering the fine performances by all.

Vertical Entertainment releases "Small Engine Repair" in theaters on 9/10/21 and on VOD/digital on 10/1/21.