Review: ‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021), starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo and Spencer House

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Small Engine Repair” (2021)

Directed by John Pollono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Manchester, New Hampshire, the comedy/drama film “Small Engine Repair” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged mechanic, who has recently been released from prison, reunites with two of his longtime friends after they’ve had a falling out, but their reunion becomes a test of loyalty and morality. 

Culture Audience: “Small Engine Repair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unpredictable movies that put a dark comedic spin on serious issues.

Ciara Bravo in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Three middle-aged men who’ve been friends since childhood reunite after spending several months apart. They hang out, party, and reminisce about the good old days. It sounds a lot like other movies, but “Small Engine Repair” is like no other film.

That’s because what seems at first to be a straightforward and predictable comedy/drama takes a very sharp, dark and unexpected turn in the last third of the film. What saves “Small Engine Repair” from being an unremarkable depiction of machismo is a sinister plot twist that walks a fine line between absurd and realistic.

“Small Engine Repair” is the vision of John Pollono, who is the writer, director and star/protagonist of the movie, which is based on Pollono’s stage play of the same name. For the first two-thirds of the movie, it’s about the up-and-down friendship between recently released prison felon Frank “Frankie” Romanowski (played by Pollono) and two pals he’s had since childhood: Terrance Swaino (played by Jon Bernthal) and Packie Hanrahan (played by Shea Whigham). Frank, Terrance and Packie have lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, since they were children.

Frank is a single father to a foul-mouthed, tough-talking teenager named Crystal Romanoski (played by Ciara Bravo), who is in her last year of high school. Despite her brash and often-crude personality, Crystal is quite intelligent and doesn’t like to show her sensitive side to very many people. She loves her father but she hates how his problems have negatively affected her life.

Terrance is happily married, and he is the most likely one out of the three friends to show common sense and think logically. He has a quick temper like Frank does, but Terrance is less likely than Frank to get violent. Because Terrance is a husband who has settled into a content life for himself, he’s also less likely to want to get into trouble, compared to how he was in his rebellious youth.

Packie is a bachelor who is somewhat simple-minded, irresponsible and emotionally immature. Packie is more likely than Terrance to want to get Frank’s approval. Packie and Frank are sometimes at odds with Terrance, who doesn’t like to think of himself as a “third wheel” but as someone who is smarter and more deserving than Packie to be Frank’s closest confidant.

Frank, Terrance and Packie come from generations of working-class people who think that getting a university degree is either a waste of time or an unaffordable dream. And where they live in Manchester has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and devastated by a steep decline in the types of factory jobs that used to keep the community thriving. During the course of the story, the three buddies will push each other’s buttons and decide how loyalty and morality play roles in their friendship with each other.

In the beginning of the movie, Frank has been released from prison for a crime or crimes that aren’t mentioned in the film. However, it’s later shown many times in the movie that Frank is a hothead, so it’s likely he spent time in prison for a violent crime. It also isn’t mentioned how long he was in prison, but it was definitely more than a few months. Now that he’s out of prison, Frank resumes his work as a mechanic. He owns his own shop called Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

Where and who is Crystal’s mother? Her name is Karen Delgado (played by Jordana Spiro), a drug addict who lives in the Los Angeles area. Frank and Karen were never married, and their breakup was very bitter. Based on what people say about Karen, she’s even more irresponsible than Frank, which is why he has custody of Crystal and has been the parent who has primarily raised her.

While Frank was in prison, Terrance and Packie looked after Crystal. As guardians, they’re permissive, since they’re the ones who sometimes supply Crystal with the marijuana that she smokes. Crystal has a rebellious streak, but she’s a good student who has done well enough academically that she can attend a major university.

One of the first conversations that Frank has with Crystal when he gets home from prison is about where she wants to go to college. Her first choice is the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but Frank wants her to go to a university that’s closer to Manchester. He doesn’t deny it when Crystal accuses Frank of discouraging her to go to UCLA because it’s in the same area where her mother Karen lives.

At first, Frank says he wouldn’t be able to afford UCLA’s tuition. Crystal says she’ll take out student loans to solve that problem. However, Frank is still down on the idea of her going to UCLA. Crystal explodes in anger and shouts that if she goes to the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, she’ll end up as “a 49-yearold supermarket checkout girl with carpal fucking tunnel!”

Finally, Frank relents and agrees to support Crystal if she’s accepted for admission into UCLA. He tells her he’ll figure out a way to help pay for the tuition. A happy and relieved Crystal promises Frank that getting a UCLA degree will be worth it. “I’ll make a lot of money,” she says.

Not long after Frank comes home from prison, he finds out from Terrance and Packie that Karen will be back in Manchester for a visit. Terrance and Packie use a lot of derogatory words to describe Karen. Frank doesn’t like Karen either, but he objects to Terrance and Packie saying degrading things about Karen, because she’s the mother of Crystal.

When Karen shows up at Frank’s house, Terrance and Packie are there too. She’s rude and very rough around the edges, with indications that she hasn’t given up her hard-partying ways. In her tense and hostile conversation with the three buddies, she makes it clear that she is only interested in spending time with Crystal, not in resolving any hard feelings that she has toward this trio of pals whom she’s known since childhood. Karen quips sarcastically, “Hey, remember when when we were all friends, before I had tits?”

Frank reluctantly lets Crystal spend some time with Karen on a girls’ night out. With Crystal out of the house, the three pals decide to let off some steam by going to a local bar. Because Frank is on parole, he has to be careful about what he says and does in public. For example, he doesn’t want to get drunk in public because that could be considered a parole violation.

Outside the bar, in the parking lot, Frank flirts with a woman named Dottie (played by Jennifer Pollono), whom he later finds out is a 35-year-old divorced mother to a 4-year-old son. Just as Frank and Dottie are about to exchange numbers and continue with their flirtation, Karen and Crystal show up. Crystal sheepishly asks Frank for some cash because Karen doesn’t have any money and Kaen says her credit cards are all maxed out. Frank expresses his disapproval but gives some cash to Crystal, who gives him a big hug and compliment to thank him.

Frank thinks that Karen is under the influence of drugs at that moment, and Crystal doesn’t deny it. However, Crystal assures Frank that Crystal, not Karen, is driving the car that they’re using. Frank doesn’t want to be an overbearing parent, so he doesn’t interfere in the plans for Crystal and Karen to spend time together.

Even though Karen and Frank haven’t been a couple in several years, Karen still acts a little jealous and possessive when she senses that Frank and Dottie have sexual chemistry together. Karen asks Dottie in a hostile tone of voice, “Who the fuck are you?” Dottie doesn’t want to get in the middle of any family drama with a man she just met, so she makes a hasty exit.

This unexpected visit from Karen has unnerved Frank, who’s also annoyed that Karen ruined his potential hookup with Dottie. When he goes back in the bar, several people are drunk, including Packie and Terrance. And not surprisingly, a bar fight breaks out, with Packie, Terrance and Frank getting involved.

Frank’s violent temper erupts and he viciously and repeatedly punches one of the instigators of the fight. It’s the type of beating where people can tell that Frank has lost total control of his anger. When he realizes that he just violated his parole with this assault, Frank yells at Terrance and Packie: “I knew this would happen! You stay away from my family! I don’t want to see you again!”

The movie then picks up six months later. Frank, Terrance and Packie have a tentative reunion. Frank has invited them to his mechanic’s shop to watch a boxing match, drink alcohol and have some steaks that he’s cooking. It’s mentioned that during their six months apart, Terrance and Packie were also estranged from each other because Terrance slapped Packie during an argument that’s not shown in the movie.

“Small Engine Repair” has occasional flashbacks showing Frank, Terrance and Packie together at various points in their lives. These flashbacks usually happen when the three pals are together and reminiscing on their past. There’s a flashback to when Crystal was 6 years old (played by Nina Peterson), when she was with the three pals and someone took a smiling photo of Crystal holding a wrench. That photo would later be used on signs and other promotional materials for Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

A harrowing flashback of when the three pals were about 11 or 12 years old shows that their childhoods included violence and other domestic abuse inflicted by their fathers. (Zachary Hernandez plays a young Frank, and Hunter Jones plays a young Terrance.) This childhood abuse serves as context for why Frank, Terrance and Packie think it’s normal to have a “rough and tumble” lifestyle where they get involved in violent fights.

Frank tells his buddies during this reunion that he wants more than alcohol and marijuana for their partying. Frank says that he recently met a university student named Chad Walker (played by Spencer House) who sells Ecstacy. Chad is coming over with some Ecstacy that Frank wants to buy. The other guys are eager and willing to do Ecstacy at this small party.

What happens after that is what makes “Small Engine Repair” so memorable and not your typical buddy movie. However, this sudden change in the movie’s plot comes fairly late in the film. Some viewers might get bored with the meandering way that the story unfolds in the first two-thirds of this 103-minute movie, which can get a tad repetitive in showing how volatile this three-way friendship can be. Other viewers might be turned off by all cursing in “Small Engine Repair.” However, if viewers stick with the movie and watch it from beginning to end, then they will see why the last third of the film is the best part.

It’s not easy to bring a comedic touch to disturbing scenarios, but “Small Engine Repair” manages to accomplish this balancing act, which could easily go wrong and become very offensive with the wrong dialogue, horrible acting or a tone-deaf perspective. All of the actors do well in their roles. However, the real star of this movie is the somewhat shocking twist, which tests the boundaries about what people might think is an acceptable way to solve problems.

Vertical Entertainment released “Small Engine Repair” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 10, 2021.