Writer-director John Pollono’s off-Broadway play, Small Engine Repair, has been on the brink of getting made into a movie for almost a decade. Having finally gotten off the ground, it’s not your typical stage-to-screen conversion. Yes, it feels tight – almost claustrophobic – but its themes are so complex, so far reaching; its characters so rich and authentic; it’s narrative both funny and dramatic that it is bound to have a much broader appeal.

Pollono – who is also in the midst of writing the Hulk Hogan movie which is due to star Chris Hemsworth – offers up a glimpse into small town lives; toxic masculinity; financial privilege and the dangers of social media. It’s a lot. These are big thematic plot points, big issues. But it works. All blend seamlessly with each other with no one point being swept aside to make room for the others.

The trailer, complete with spiky, sharp musical soundtrack, makes this film seem like a murder-thriller. So, for the first hour or so, you may well wonder just what the hell you’re watching. Presumably this is a marketing tactic to encourage cinema viewers to make Small Engine Repair their viewing of choice, but it doesn’t need it. Because this is a really brilliant, complex piece of cinema.

The film primarily centres around the lives of three lifelong friends who live in the town of Manchester, New Hampshire (ruthlessly nicknamed Manch Vegas owing to its distinct lack of glamour). There are clear social problems here – jail time, drinking, drug taking. Frank (Pollono), Terrence (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) reignite their friendship upon Frank’s release from prison. There is a shared sense of pride that all three of these men feel when Frank’s daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) announces that she got into college.

Straight away, the effortless rapport between the three male leads establishes decades worth of history together. The dialogue is razor sharp – the actors often talking over each other to get their next barb in. The insults fly thick and fast and are almost poetic in their rhythm. These are working class men; robust and ready to take the piss. The writing, coupled with the delivery, really fleshes these characters out and draws you in to their particular set of circumstances.

Pollono gives a steady performance as Frank. The least gregarious of the three, you can always tell that there is something simmering away under the surface. His eyes often look haunted; pained. He is clearly a hands-on father with boundless amounts of love and pride for his daughter. Bernthal is clearly relishing the performative machismo that the role of Terrence brings. He’s dry humping his flashy red motorbike and talking about getting blowjobs when we’ve seen that he’s not that great with women and that he likes doing face masks with his sisters. It’s good fun to see Bernthal take on this “cock of the walk” type of role. Whigham, as Packie, is the most physically comedic. He’s slower to the punchline, too, and can never quite keep up with his pal’s insults. Watching his character and Bernthal’s debate Instagram filters – Packie prefers Perpetua – is really funny.

* spoilers ahead * But despite all this “lad” humour, the film does have this undercurrent rippling through it. It’s a kind of tension you can’t quite put your finger on – largely because you’re not really sure how the whole thing is going to unravel. And, sure enough, around the hour mark, the film swivels from inane chatter to a potential murder. Molly-dealing, college basketballer, Chad (Spencer House), simply drips with frat boy douchebaggery and financial privilege. He turns up to Frank’s garage on the assumption that these middle-aged men want to take their night up a notch. In reality, he’s got a target on his back that allows the film to build and build and build into a neat crescendo, without ever losing the humour and camaraderie that has made it so enjoyable up until this point.

Given that the film is adapted from a play, you won’t feel it. Often, in these transitions, the one location makes things feel like you’re just watching the theatre on a screen. The locations are a relatively fluid here and, although the camera work is tight, it just adds to the overall tension. You could argue that the flashbacks are unnecessary – they clearly won’t have been in the play – as they don’t really tell us anything extra about the characters as they are already so well-fleshed out.

And, despite this clearly being a male-led movie, the two female characters are not two dimensional. Crystal is a fiercely independent young woman who takes no crap from her dad or his friends. She has been let down by both of her parents and yet has pushed herself to study and get into college. Ciara Bravo gives an excellent, credible performance. Jordana Spiro, as Karen, is equally interesting to wash. She’s loud and gauche but also really wants to bond with her daughter and make a fresh start. There obviously isn’t room for much more in the way of character development but you get to know enough about these two women that they don’t feel like an afterthought.

The film’s success lies not only in its three male leads but in the “life lessons” it lays bare. It’s very much a “show, don’t tell” type of film. The issues it explores are very real and similar situations in college campuses and high schools all over the world have, sadly, all too regularly hit the headlines. There are warnings about giving into our primal instincts; toxic masculinity; frat boy culture; social media. It’s the perfect storm of bad behaviour and the devastating consequences it can wreak.

Small Engine Repair is a really interesting take on themes and issues familiar to so many, brought to life by complex and entertaining central performances.

Rating: 

Only in Theatres from September 10, 2021