‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021)

❉ Few other films this year will leave a burn mark on you quite the way this one does, writes Nick Clement.

“Adapted from his own off-Broadway play, John Pollono’s angry and feisty Small Engine Repair is one of the best and most exciting films from 2021, a singular piece of work that doesn’t mince words or play nice, by anyone’s standards.”

One of the best things that a motion picture can do is spur on a visceral response – be it love or hate – within the viewer. How does a movie play upon and then satisfy your emotions? Films that shoot for some sort of middle ground, by and large, can feel forgettable; it’s the efforts that stick to their guns, however dark and dysfunctional those guns may be, that leave a lasting impression. To that end, John Pollono’s angry and feisty Small Engine Repair is one of the best and most exciting films from 2021, a singular piece of work that doesn’t mince words or play nice, by anyone’s standards. This is a confrontational piece of storytelling that aims to disrupt, repel, and shock the viewer, and more frequently than not, Pollono succeeds in all of these departments. Whether or not all audiences will be able to stomach this harrowing slice of male-bonding-gone-wrong is open for debate, but what I can confidently state is that few other films will leave a burn mark on you quite the way this one does.

John Pollono.

Adapted from his own off-Broadway play, Pollono’s hot-blooded story concerns three working class New Hampshire friends who share inexorable bonds as human beings, and as such, they’re willing to follow each other down any path that their hardscrabble lives take. Frank Romanowski (Pollono) isn’t likely to win any Father of the Year awards, a man with a criminal background whose jail time was served during his daughter’s crucial “growing up years.” Frank’s two best friends, Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan (Shea Wigham) and Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal), have been at his side for his entire life, and you get the sense that, while unspoken, this unit has gone through plenty of intense stuff throughout their collective existences. But nothing can prepare Patrick and Terrance for what Frank tells them one fateful evening, to say anything about the massive favours that he asks of his closest buddies.

Jon Bernthal.

Pollono’s thematically stacked screenplay touches on so many items: how young people see themselves, predatory dating tactics, the generational separation of folks in their mid to late 40s to those in their early 20s, the importance and crushing reality that the internet plays in our lives, and the human desire for cathartic revenge. If it feels like I’m dancing around the central plot of Small Engine Repair, well, that’s exactly what I’m doing, because this film hinges on a story development that’s so incendiary, and so filled with dramatic potential, that I don’t want to set any further expectations; I’d argue that even watching the film’s powerful trailer is too much, as the less you know about this one, the better off you’ll be as it all unfolds. The lived-in and very macho performances from Pollono, Bernthal, and Wigham are all galvanizing and introspectively passionate, while Ciara Bravo registers tender notes as Frank’s daughter Crystal, and Spencer House is almost too perfect as the smug prick that picks the wrong group of men to screw around with.

Ciara Bravo.

Originally set to premiere at 2020’s South by Southwest Film Festival, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed this film’s release, and just as it is with many indie offerings from over the last two years, Small Engine Repair is finding a quiet theatrical release (handled by Vertical Entertainment in the United States), followed by a likely large following on VOD platforms. It’s a gritty and vulgar drama, with a Mamet and Letts-flavoured vibe that isn’t interested in showcasing special effects, which makes it perfect for home entertainment viewing. And yet at the same time, it’s a reminder of how impactful purely dramatic storytelling can be, and it seems more and more of a shame that smaller items like this have to cut through a very competitive field to find any visibility within the marketplace. Small Engine Repair has been designed to provoke, and provoke it most certainly does, and ultimately, I can think of very few other releases from this calendar year that are as memorable as this one.

❉ ‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021) made its US theatrical debut 10 September 2021, distributed by Vertical Entertainment. Expect a digital release on VOD platforms to follow.

 Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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