'Small Engine Repair' Addresses Male Friendship and Masculinity in Explosive Comedy-Thriller Blend

A white man in work shirt explains to friends how the evening will go

John Pollono examines the dynamics of long-term male friendship in his intimate ensemble drama, Small Engine Repair. Based on a screenplay Pollono originally wrote for the stage, Small Engine Repair follows a trio of lifetime friends from Manchester, New Hampshire through three different time periods. Although Pollono wrote the script to reflect his upbringing as part of the blue-collar sector of New England, at its heart, the film examines masculinity and the way society shapes the way men who care for one another express their love. The story evolves tonally from relationship drama to dark comedy to taut thriller, taking viewers on a rollercoaster ride through the male psyche. Hold on to your Johnny Walker Blue, it's going to be a bumpy night.

Frank (Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal), and Packie (Shea Whigham) have been through thick and thin together. In the cold open, we discover that while Frank was in prison, Swaino and Packie took care of Frank's young daughter, Crystal. The story then fast forwards to when Crystal is graduating high school. Frank has gone straight and stopped drinking. He struggles to make ends meet, but his love for Crystal keeps him grounded. After a night out with Packie and Swaino turns rowdy, Frank decides he needs to cut ties with his rabble-rousing friends. Three months go by with radio silence. Out of the blue, Frank offers an olive branch and invites Swaino and Packie for an evening of scotch, steaks, pay-per-view, and good-natured merriment. But the innocent evening turns explosive when Frank reveals the real reason he has called them together. Questions of loyalty come into play when these three friends have to decide how far they are willing to go to protect one of their own.

Teen girls takes selfie on her bed

Not all plays transition well to the screen, but part of the reason Small Engine Repair succeeds is the director's use of space. The scenes feel realistically rendered. Most of the action takes place in Frank's house, the group rotates through the house, to the garage, and the backyard. A few times, they leave the premises to visit local bars or shops. Everything feels lived in and authentic. The characters move in and out of these spaces comfortably, and you believe that they have lived there all their lives.

The interactions of the small cast also stand out as a high point. Frank is the clear alpha male. Even though he went to prison, Frank has a calm manner that marks him as in control and unaffected. Frank acts as the glue and often plays referee between Swaino and Packie. Swaino walks with boastful swagger and feels the need to knock down others to make himself feel better, taking the role of the beta. That leaves Packie to take the gamma role of the clown and punching bag. Packie is the closest target for Swaino's insensitive verbal assaults. But to maintain his manhood, Packie laughs it off and acts like it doesn't bother him. Pollono, Bernthal, and Whigham all put in the work to make their interactions sizzle.

White woman in black hoodie looks over her shoulder

The female cast members play small but significant roles. Karen (Jordana Spiro), Frank's ex and Crystal's mom, exudes the kind of female energy that only comes from living in an environment ripe with toxic masculinity your whole life. Karen's learned that in order to matter, she needs to play "fun times girl," and never show emotions other than anger or disdain. Ciara Bravo as Crystal only comes on screen a few times, but her invisible presence hangs over the story at all times. The friends' love for one another is manifested in their shared love for Crystal. While she's Frank's daughter, she is the closest thing to a progeny Swaino and Packie will ever have.

Pollono wastes no time with unnecessary on-screen action. Every monologue, interaction, and silent shot builds towards the inevitable climax. While the beginning third of the story feels more like a slice-of-life tale, the characters (mostly Crystal) drop subtle clues that something is stewing beneath the surface.

Three men and a woman look at an off-screen person
[L-R] Jon Bernthal as SWAINO, Shea Whigham as PACKIE, Jordana Spiro as KAREN, John Pollono as FRANK in SMALL ENGINE REPAIR

In Small Engine Repair, viewers should expect a dynamic experience about masculinity, friendship, and chosen family. Underneath the film's explosive final act lies a thoughtful exploration of social dynamics between intimate friends. While the story has an open-ended finale, questions linger of where life will take this pack next. Recommend to viewers who like intimate dramas, well-crafted dialogue, stories that examine social order, slice-of-life tales, and examinations of contemporary masculinity.

Release info: Coming to theaters September 10th

Final score: 3.5 out of 5


Archive said…
I liked the acting, the script, and the production. Everything in this movie is good, I would recommend watching it!