The topic of masculinity has been a common one in many movies made over the decades, almost to the point where I’m not sure anything new can be said about it. In many films of late, the subject has been toxic masculinity—and for good reason—but there are other stories that examine the bond male friends have with each other (especially those who grew up together) that can be as supportive as it is destructive, depending on the circumstances. The staggeringly acted and rough-around-the-edges new drama Small Engine Repair is just such a work. It comes courtesy of writer and first-time director John Pollono, who also stars in the film, based on his play.
The film gives us an immediate sense of place by informing us in a title card that the derivative term “Manch-Vegas” is a name give to the city of Manchester, New Hampshire (where the film is set), as a way of juxtaposing the glitz and polish of Las Vegas with Manchester’s lack of either. It’s a way for the people of Manchester to beat you to the punchline about this last bastion of lower-middle-class living (as one character puts it), where the drinking is constant and the accents are thick.
As the film opens, Frankie (Pollono, who also wrote the terrific film Stronger, about a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing) is getting out of a night or two in prison, where he was thrown after losing his temper and getting into a brutal fight. Frankie is a single father of a young daughter named Crystal, who frequently has to be taken care of by his two best friends, Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham). Frankie’s estranged wife Karen (Jordana Spiro) drifts in and out of town, and is essentially a non-presence in both Frankie and Crystal’s lives. But in this moment in time, Crystal is scared of her father because his excessive drinking leads to fits of violence, never aimed at her but sometimes committed in her presence.
The film skips ahead to when Crystal is 17 (and played by Ciara Bravo, who starred opposite Tom Holland in last year’s underrated Cherry), and she’s clearly been jointly raised by these three knuckleheads. She’s swears like a sailor and has an attitude like she will take no shit from no one. But she’s also wicked smart and has just been accepted into UCLA, which her father clearly can’t afford without going into serious debt—but that’s exactly what he’s willing to do for her. Frankie has also cleaned up his act—not drinking, smoking or fighting—to make sure his daughter never looks at him in fear again.
When her mother shows up one Christmas, Crystal is excited to see her but she also knows that since she’s going away to school the next year, she’ll have fewer chances to be with her. Swaino and Packie hate Karen, and the exchanges among the three of them are epic ball-busting sessions that make it clear that one of Small Engine Repair’s primary objectives is to make us laugh, sucker us into thinking this thing is a comedy—until it isn’t. This section of the film ends in yet another bar fight, and Frankie nearly kills a guy, although somehow gets away with it. But it causes another rift between father and daughter, and even drives a wedge between the three buddies.
Jumping ahead three months, Frankie is attempting to get the band back together by inviting Swaino and Packie over for dinner at his repair shop, without letting the other know they’re coming. Not surprisingly, a little booze and some steaks solve many a problem. But before we realize what’s happening, we see that Frankie is drinking again, heavily, and he’s even ordered up some tablets of molly to truly celebrate this reunion. The tabs arrive via a college kid named Chad (Spencer House) who Frankie plays basketball with sometimes, and before long Chad and the boys are swapping stories, including a particularly ugly and tragic one from Chad that proves to be his undoing. I don’t want to say how this chapter of the film continues, but the way that Pollono sneaks an actual mystery and dramatic turns into his film is quite remarkable, and we go from a whiskey-fueled character study to something far more drastic in the blink of an eye.
The three male leads are different brands of men. Frankie is probably the most standard-issue model from the region, but he wants to better himself for his kid. Swaino is more put together, thanks in part to growing up among sisters, so he knows how to put a semi-stylish outfit together, especially compared to his friends. Bernthal is one of my favorite working actors, and the qualities he adds to his character are nuanced, poignant, and absolutely necessary to the film’s success. Last week, I sung Whigham’s praises for a film called The Gateway, but in this film, he’s back doing what he does best: supporting his co-stars as Packie, twitchy, sensitive but still tough as nails.
Throughout the film, the three share stories of recent sexual conquests that we’re fairly certain have to be exaggerated, so when Chad begins his similar story, we think nothing of it—until his story gets beyond dark, even for this crew. And it’s in the way that Small Engine Repair leads you to its true intention, which you don’t realize until you are neck deep in it, that reveals its magical qualities. Pollono’s film most closely resembles a pitch-black comedy, but don’t get too comfortable with that label. That’s part of the power of this film that is well worth seeking out.
The film opens theatrically on Friday, including at AMC River East.
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