John Pollono's play Small Engine Repair came out in 2011 and made a bit of a splash. The film adaptation finds Pollono as director, writer, and star and he successfully translates the play to film while avoiding many of the pitfalls of going from stage to screen. This is largely due to Pollono's confident direction that widens the scope of the film by changing locations and adding characters.
At the heart of the story is an examination of class revenge and toxic masculinity. Jon Bernthal reprises his role from the stage here because what actor honestly represents a particular type of angry masculinity like him. Shea Whigham is a new addition here and works well against Pollono and Bernthal.
The story follows three childhood friends who are now part of the working-class and middle-aged. They live in Manchester N.H., a small, icy New England city. It seems like a quiet city and their lives aren't really going places when the film opens. When the men get together, their adolescent prankish attitudes come back instantly. Frank (Pollono) is a mechanic just released from prison. He carries with him a rage that simmers all the time. Terrance Swaino (Benthal) is the aging ladies' man who thinks he is a bit above his buddies. Packie (Whigham) is the least mature of them, riding a BMX bike around town and generally looking to get drunk or worse most of the time.
Frank's pride and joy is his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). Crystal is smart and college-bound. She has a good chance of getting out of Manchester. Her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) is a mess. She wants to be in Crystal's life but shows up drunk and without money. Frank only tolerates her because Crystal wants her around.
The film's first half is a slice of life buddy comedy of sorts. The sadness of these men's lives sits right outside of every scene. The three leads play off each other wonderfully and the humor bubbles up from their performances. There is a running commentary on class. Frank tells his daughter they aren't poor early on. Small Engine Repair makes a big tonal shift midway through with the arrival of Chad (Spencer House) a law student whose parents are rich and get him out of any situation. Frank knows Chad from a pickup basketball crew. Frank invites Chad to come by and deal drugs so the three friends can have an experience. But Frank has another, darker reason for Chad coming over.
Once the film kicks over to full thriller mode, it is a tense affair. The ensemble cast is all excellent here which helps make the transition of tones smooth. The final act becomes a bit stagey but it is also when the film is firing on all cylinders. Pollono in particular is mesmerizing as Frank. The film gets very dark as we learn what Chad has done to deserve Frank's wrath.
However, in its final moments, Small Engine Repair wraps everything up in a neat bow. It is too neat for my tastes as the near-perfect resolution rings false. For a film about the messiness of masculinity, the ending undermines the film's theme by showing that everything can work out. One leaves the film unsure if anything truly changes and what is the point of the entire story. Until the final few minutes, the film is funny, thrilling, and moving with a trio of fantastic performances.