Many interesting films have been made about men and their deep-seated insecurities. Whether this subject has been approached from a satirical angle in comedies like Knocked Up or The Wolf of Wall Street, or taken with the utmost seriousness in dramas like Raging Bull (Scorcese is the master of studying the male-ego and its pitfalls), masculinity will always be a fascinating issue, especially these days.
Now we have John Pollono’s debut film, Small Engine Repair, which focuses on childhood friends who seem to be having a tough time shedding their tough guy personas. These are middle aged men who collectively raised a young girl, but can’t seem to stay out of drunken brawls or sustain a meaningful relationship with a woman. It’s a great setup. But while Pollono’s film hits some of its marks as an involving character study, it doesn’t really answer the challenging questions it poses, and ultimately, it feels like another exercise in machismo, the very subject it tries to scrutinize.
Pollono pulls triple duty as screenwriter (adapted from his award-winning play), director and star of this gritty depiction of three buddies who never left their childhood town of Manchester, New Hampshire. Frank Romanowski (John Pollono) is an ex-con who owns a small repair shop. After he’s released from prison, his best friends Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) help him raise his daughter, Crystal (Ciara Bravo). Together they make a sort of surrogate family for Crystal, whose self-destructive mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro) floats in and out of her life with drunken convenience. These men might be in their forties but they never really grew up; they trade barbs like high school juveniles, they drink til they blackout (except Frank who’s a recovering alcoholic), and they even engage in the occasional barfight. Their only saving grace is Frank’s daughter, Crystal. One night when she tells them she’s been accepted to college, they rejoice, knowing they did something right in their lives.
The first half of the movie, which establishes these characters and pulls us into working-class New Hampshire, is filled with keen insights and hilariously dark dialogue. These roughnecks are far from politically correct, but you’re still drawn to them. Pollono knows how people in this part of the country talk and he doesn’t pull any punches in his bare-knuckled writing. Even as they insult the hell out of each other, you can’t help but laugh at the authenticity of their camaraderie. One night their bantering goes too far and they get pulled into another barfight, which causes a rift between them for months.
The second half of the film stretches over one night when Frank invites his estranged friends to the machine shop to make amends. He offers them expensive booze and steaks and even drinks with them, which is the first red flag. Then he casually mentions that he’s been playing basketball with a college kid named Chad (Spencer House), who’s going to stop by to sell them molly. Your typical privileged “bro,” Chad arrives in an SUV and hangs out, bragging about his powerful attorney father and other stuff, completely ignorant of the fact that he walked into a trap. At this point, the narrative takes a dark turn, which doesn’t really work.
The latter part of the film touches on the dangers of social media, toxic masculinity and the questionable nature of revenge. Unfortunately, what started as an intimate portrait of blue-collar life devolves into trite sequences we’ve seen far too many times. With such specific and well-conceived characters, you can’t help but feel robbed when they’re placed in cliched scenarios. Although it’s based on Pollono’s play, you wonder how a movie about three friends coming to terms with getting older became a dimwitted Tarantino knockoff. Pollono also attempts to inject his story with contemporary social issues, which feels awkward, like your dad trying to post an Instagram picture.
If not for the hackneyed story, Small Engine Repair might keep you engaged thanks to its darkhumor and dynamic performances. Pollono gives a quietly powerful turn as Frank and Ciara Bravo as his daughter is a natural. However, it’s pros like Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) that raise this project to a higher level. They bring a rare authenticity to the screen, which makes you understand these broken souls on a cellular level. Their characters are stunted, childish men who never really dealt with underlying traumas. Guys like this exist, but this movie never goes beyond that fact. Pollono’s movie has enough verve and arresting moments to keep it lingering in your head after it ends, but it’s disappointing second half leaves you feeling a little empty and bereft of any strong point of view.