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Small Engine Repair
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by Jay Seaver

"The play you write for yourself becomes a movie that showcase your co-stars"
3 stars

Buried at the very end of the credits of this film is that it was adapted from writer/director/star John Pollono's play of the same name, and though it doesn't appear to have been a one-act play, it's got the feel of something where he started from a well-constructed second half and worked backward. He does it well enough that he's not just killing time and padding the movie, but there's certainly something more potent to be distilled from this fairly decent movie.

It spends a fair amount of time letting the audience get to know its characters - Frank Romanowski (Pollono), who owns the repair shop of the title, and has done a fair job of pulling himself together and raising his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo), what with her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) being a frequently-absent hot mess. He's been best friends with Patrick "Packie" Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) and Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) as long as they can remember, at least until things blew up three months ago in a blast of rage and alcohol. Now he's reaching out to reconnect, with MDMA supplied by Chad (Spencer House), a Boston College student he met playing pickup basketball, but it turns out that they've all been invited to the shop under false pretenses.

By the time Pollono puts his cards on the table, it's clear what he's holding, but he's done a fair job putting things into place without making it too obvious that this is what he's doing. It's kind of a thin story that spends a bit of time running in place than it needs to, using the openings stretches to establish the characters' personalities and get them to the spot where they haven't talked for a while even though the audience would probably be just fine starting with Frank texting Packie and Swaino to meet him at the shop. The simplicity of the story also has Pollono throwing in a fake "here's the plan" digression, right before coming up with a smart reason not to proceed and a kind of rushed follow-up that even the characters point out as being not cool.

All of the male characters get a flashback that was probably just a speech on stage but which kind of plays out strangely on screen. The most successful is probably Swaino's, which does a nice job of using the objective version of events to undercut his macho bluster, although it's not like Jon Bernthal hasn't been making it fairly clear that the guy is full of it all along. There's something kind of interesting going on with Packie's, which goes back to the friends' childhood but still has Shea Wigham playing him with child actors as the other two, as if to suggest he was always both child-like and middle-aged, but it also breaks up how his speech is this long response to something that Chad said and circles around to a punchline. Pollono holds back a bit with Frank and Chad, because at that point showing too much might tip his hand.

Ideally, that gives one the chance to look at the characters a little more, steep the audience in the sort of toxic, crass environment that leaves them sort of stunted and quick to violence. Pollono likely created Frank for himself but he still has the least to do as an actor at times; the rage erupts out of him on a hair trigger but he doesn't exactly show Frank holding it back or galvanized in such a way that he's actually planning his violence, only occasionally finding the spots in between the loving dad trying his best and the guy who loses control. Ciara Bravo does well as a teenager who kind of reflects the men who raised her (though I wonder if Crystal was actually in the play or off-screen from how she's used), and Spencer House does the puffed-up frat guy well enough. Karen's not exactly a fresh character and is in a number of scenes without a lot to do, but Jordana Spiro puts energy into making her the woman that Crystal loves but doesn't want to be when she grows up.

It's not surprising that Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham are the guys listed first in the credits despite being supporting characters, even beyond being the actors filmgoers are most likely to recognize. Swaino is enough of a jerk that one almost sees this as a waste of such a charismatic actor, but it's a good performance; Bernthal takes this guy who grew up the only brother of three older sisters and has him kind of internalize the overcompensation. He's a macho jackass that one nevertheless instinctively believes changed diapers for his sisters' kids or was the one 4-year-old Crystal wouldn't let go of in a flashback. Whigham, meanwhile, makes Packie that character one would like to see dug into and unpacked the most, fragile enough to be bullied and often framed as the arrested-development eccentric such that every moment when he clearly knows what he's talking about better than anyone else comes as a delightful surprise; Whigham takes scenes that contrast Packie's reactions against the expected casual sexism and homophobia of the working class and makes them funny but also makes the point that blue-collar guys don't have to be that way. You can almost believe that the weird flashback comes from just not finding a 9-year-old who can do what Whigham is doing as the younger Packie.

It's all a bit of a mess with a fair amount of making sure we know folks aren't sophisticated guys who went to college by having them use "fuck" twice a sentence, and the audience can see that, but when it gets to an emotional last scene and line, that same audience buys it. Not having seen the play, I can't tell whether there were bumps going from stage to screen or if some of the issues are just part of the movie, but it works more than it doesn't when all is said and done.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34855&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/12/21 12:46:34
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USA
  10-Sep-2021 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
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Directed by
  John Pollono

Written by
  John Pollono

Cast
  John Pollono
  Jon Bernthal
  Shea Whigham
  Ciara Bravo
  Jordana Spiro
  Josh Helman



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