Moviegoer: Small Engine Repair

Jon Bernthal, John Pollono, and Shea Whigham star in Small Engine Repair.

A great cast keeps this movie from completely breaking down

By Diana Beechener

Frank (John Pollono: This Is Us) has always had a scary temper. It landed him in jail for a spell when his daughter was small, leaving Frank’s well-meaning goofball buddies to raise her. Swaino (Jon Bernthal: The Many Saints of Newark) and Packie (Shea Whigham: F9: The Fast Saga) do a pretty good job, and when Frank is released, the motley little family moves forward.

         For 10 years, Frank gives up drinking and brawling, focusing instead on building up his small repairs garage to make sure his daughter has a chance to thrive in a stable home.

         But Frank’s temper never really went away. He still punches holes in walls and on a memorable night out with Packie and Swaino, he almost beats a man to death in front of his daughter. Deciding his two buddies are the problem, Frank tells them to never contact him or his family again.

         Three months later, Frank calls Packie and Swaino back to his garage. He gives a different reason to each of them, but the men assume their friend is ready to forgive and forget. Not quite.

         Frank has planned a night that will test the three men and their bond.

         Small Engine Repair is a fun study of male friendships for about an hour. Pollono, Bernthal, and Whigham clearly had a great time portraying idiot alpha males who bust on each other, drink and act like kids. It’s pretty fun to watch too, featuring bro-type humor peppered with enough actual pathos to keep the men endearing. Then, the film takes a turn that’s…frankly, mystifying.

         I won’t spoil the twist in this review, but it’s a baffling dramatic turn with a conclusion that’s either deeply infuriating or highly unsatisfying, depending on your view of assault.

         Pollono directed and adapted Small Engine Repair from his play and the additions to the story made for the film are the strongest bits. The movie works best when the three men are raising a child as a village, or cutting up with each other over beers and bong hits. It’s the meaty dramatic bits that come out of left field and seem to completely kill all the goodwill the opening of the film establishes.

         Watching Bernthal and Whigham play off each other is especially fun. Each actor is given a sort of broadly drawn character and runs with it. Bernthal’s Swaino is filled with forced bravado to hide the fact that he’s brow-beaten by his sisters and deeply sensitive. Whigham’s Packie is a genius, whose awkwardness hurts his social prospects. Both actors are worlds above the material they’re working with, but they manage to wring laughs and a surprising amount of empathy out of the script.

         Still, Pollono’s instincts are odd as both a writer and filmmaker. When he renders a flashback through Packie’s perspective, he chooses to use child actors for the trio—except for Packie. Watching Whigham and two children try to run from a beating isn’t charming, it’s strange.

There are several attempts at dark humor, that don’t work. Pollono’s style is similar to that of Martin McDonagh (of In Bruges fame), but his humor isn’t quite as biting and the writing isn’t nearly as sharp, so the whole project falls flat.

         The missteps are especially frustrating because this is a film with potential. A simpler story about three friends reconnecting after a falling out would have preserved the fun of the first hour without raising any of the massive issues the dramatic twist and ending encounter.

         If you’re in the mood for an hour of good old-fashioned male-bonding, Small Engine Repair has you covered. But the twist and its resolution is a wrench in the works for this film, which never quite gets the engine to turn over.

Small Engine Repair is available to rent for $6.99 on VOD or Amazon Prime

Fair Drama * R * 103 mins.