Masculinity, the idea of honorable fatherhood, and the gentle art of drinking until your body is immune to the punches taken (and given) at the neighborhood bar seem to be the overriding theme in John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair. They’re interesting ideas all given plenty of room to breathe in the film, especially since the film is adapted from Pollono’s own play as if it’s making a case for its right to stand along the profane masterworks of David Mamet. But this is not Mamet, and before long, Small Engine Repair‘s faults become weary and its intentions much darker as it hinges on a narrative swing that further comments on an atmosphere of toxic behavior among its denizens who drink too much, brag too much, and whose long soliloquies never reveal more than their sodden surface.
Small Engine Repair begins with a reunion as three childhood friends Frank (the playwright himself Pollono), Packie (Shea Wigham) and Swaino (Jon Bernthal) spend their days drinking and reminiscing. They form a sort of three fathers to Frank’s teenage daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo), who herself is on the verge of adulthood and going away to college. Plucky and full of just as much Northeastern vigor as her three hard-drinking and profane father figures, the camaraderie of this makeshift family is strongly envisioned during the first half of the film.
Of course, things can’t stay as idyllic. After a falling out between the three friends and months pass, Frank manufactures a reason for Packie and Swaino to join him at his business (hence the title) for a night of partying that involves the arrival of a young drug dealer (Spencer House) to help spice up the events.
Between a variety of stories that reveal past sexual conquests, ruminations on the terrors of social media, and walled off emotions about childhood beatings by their fathers (after a Red Sox defeat naturally), Small Engine Repair shows its true stage-bound roots in this second half. The only problem is that none of these things ring especially revealing. It’s just more machismo poured on top of characters dripping with repressed violence and a lifetime of drunken stupors.
As the three friends, Pollonmo, Wigham and Bernthal give sound performances, although I wish Bernthal (with the exception of his humane performance in Wind River) would wrestle free of the meathead typecasting he currently seems to find himself in. Best, however, is Bravo as Crystal whose initial presence serves as the emotional core for the film late, giving a circumspect but believable reason for the film’s turn down violent lanes. It’s a telling trinket of her talent that she can command in a film that seemingly only wants to focus on male rage blurred behind drink and drugs.
Originally premiering on the stage in 2014 and pushed from a debut on the festival circuit last year, Small Engine Repair has a lot on its mind. And even though I understand that the viewer doesn’t need to like characters in a movie for it to be successful, it does need to illuminate or reveal something deeper about them. For as many words the film/play spends trying to rationalize them, it falls short in creating anything other than hard men making even worse decisions.
Small Engine Repair opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday September 10th at the following locations: Alamo Drafthouse Cedars, AMC Arlington 18, AMC Stonebriar 24, Cinemark Legacy 24 Plano, AMC Mesquite 30 and AMC Firewheel 18.