Small Engine Repair is a shocking and unexpectedly powerful character drama/thriller that demands to be seen and discussed.
So many films are made now and it’s a beautiful sight to see. Whether they come in the form of blockbusters or independent drama, there’s a large variety of media for us to consume everyday and a lot of it is made to impressively high standards. In this sea of content however, there’s inevitably a lot of films that fall by the wayside. Small Engine Repair is one of those particular films. A dialogue driven drama and thriller that is mostly set in one location and only features a handful of characters. It may not have the flashy visual effects of something like Spider-Man: Far From Home, but what it does have deeply tucked inside of it is a stunning and shocking tale of masculinity, family and generational divide in the age of social media that grips you right from the start and doesn’t let go until the credits begin to roll.
The film follows three friends. Frank (John Pollono, who also serves as the writer and director), Patrick (Shea Whigham) and Swaino (Jon Bernthal). The trio have been friends since they were kids and when Frank’s daughter, Crystal (Ciara Bravo), is added to the mix, their love for each other grows deeper. Early in Crystal’s life, Frank finds his way in prison, and, during a run in at the bar to celebrate Crystal’s successful college application, Frank’s anger issues get the better of him. The three friends break things off and go their own separate ways. A few months later, Frank calls Patrick and Swaino to set up a reunion of sorts at his workplace, a repair shop. When they arrive, Frank immediately comes across as suspicious, sneaking away to talk on the phone to a mysterious stranger and constantly teasing what the night holds in store for everyone. As a younger rich kid enters the scene, secrets and tensions between the friends and the kid reach a boiling point, leading to a bombshell that will make or break this lifelong friendship.
The heart of Small Engine Repair is the characters. John Pollono portrays Frank as a man who’s anger issues are a constant source of pain and frustration in his life, but, at his core, he simply loves his daughter and wants her to be a better person than him. Their relationship is rocky but it’s one forged with the understanding that they love each other, when all is said and done. They’re both from different generations, and a key part of the film’s themes is that particular divide with the rise of social media and how much of yourself you put on the internet.
The main trio all have various degrees of understanding in social media but they’re all ultimately behind when it comes to Crystal and the younger people around them. They’re not quite blind to it all but their vision of what the future is becoming is blurred. Patrick and Swaino are ultimately the source of the film’s most comedic and emotional moments. Both strayed away from each other and Frank, but this reunion makes it feel as though no time has passed. Patrick is often the punching bag of the cast, with Swaino being the one who issues the punches. As cruel as Swaino in particular can be as a character, he’s still ultimately depicted as a deeply human character who loves the people around him. Most people watching the film can place themselves in their shoes and it’s thanks to the performances and Pollono’s writing that each and every character feels so realised and lived in.
That realism that attaches itself to Small Engine Repair comes from its deep roots of originally being on stage in Los Angeles and New York. The transition from stage to screen is a simple one, as it feels like John Pollono didn’t do much to really change the story. More characters have been added, and more scenes have been added outside of the central repair shop location that establish a much deeper understanding of what leads these characters to this place. It still mostly takes place in that one location but it also wasn’t a mere copy and paste job. Instead, it proves how well this story works between both mediums. Whether you watch this on a stage or on a screen, the central points and powerful moments that are crafted can still be felt. As a script that tackles something as particular and constantly evolving as social media, it’s a particularly impressive feat.
The film is admittedly a tough film to talk about and that’s because of just how much more there is to it than meets the eye. For the first forty five to sixty minutes, the tone of the film is actually fairly lighthearted, leading to an almost mumblecore type aesthetic as it focuses entirely on character. The core friendship between the trio as well as their own relationships with Crystal is beautifully crafted, and that’s largely thanks to how Pollono really takes the time to get you used to everybody and their interactions. It’s really a film that’s got two specific and vastly different halves that form together by the end to create one piece. That second half is one that truly can’t be spoiled as the shock and awe that comes from it is what makes Small Engine Repair a stunning piece of work. Knowing it in advance doesn’t hurt the film but rather, it hurts the viewer’s own experience. It’s a film that sneaks into your watchlist and even runs the risk of never being seen, but when it does actually get that airtime, it reveals itself to be a dense and finely tuned piece of filmmaking.
Small Engine Repair is the type of film that’s perfect to stumble across. It may not make a billion dollars in the box office or have an extensive marketing campaign, but what it has is the ability to create a dialogue between viewers. It’s the type of film that can be fuelled purely by word of mouth and that’s something that’s becoming increasingly harder as we consume more & more content before quickly moving onto the next thing. The film is a blend of comedy, drama and thriller that all comes together in a way that feels unique and organised. Tonal whiplash can be a detriment to many films but this is one where it’s actually used to elevate the thick in texture script. If this comes across your line of sight, give it a chance and go along for the ride. It’ll make for a deeply rewarding experience.
Small Engine Repair was released in theaters worldwide on September 10, 2021.