Small Engine Repair intentionally sneaks up on you. For the longest time, it seems to be a compelling, occasionally funny look at male friendship. Not until the third act does the true meaning reveal itself. That's the point where something happens to make you realize all the buddy-buddy stuff you've just watched was merely the build-up. Without understanding the characters and their relationships to one another, the direction the plot goes in would feel artificial. Because we come to know these people completely, though, the final thirty minutes make perfect sense, and what transpires hits like a sledgehammer.
John Pollono (who also wrote and directed) plays Frank, a single father to teenage daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). His ex-wife Karen (Jordana Spiro) only shows up intermittently, usually leaving Crystal disappointed in the process. Frank's two long-time best friends are Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham). They're good-old-boys who enjoy drinking at the local bar, talking about their sexual exploits, and busting each other's balls with insults. Frank's business, which gives the movie its title, is another place they often chill.
The men have a falling out after an evening at the bar turns violent. Three months later, Frank invites the other two to his shop for a reconciliation. Or that's what he claims, at least. He really has an ulterior motive. I won't reveal it here, except to say that it involves a college student/drug dealer named Chad Walker (Spencer House).
Early scenes do an excellent job of developing the bond between Frank, Swaino, and Packie. These are not politically correct men. When Swaino refers to Karen by the C-word, Packie suggests he use milder terminology like “slut” or “whore.” Their language is peppered with profanity. They make jokes that are misogynist and homophobic. At the same time, they're fiercely loyal. Frank is a good dad, even promising to pay for the pricey college education Crystal desires.
Pollono, Bernthal, and Whigham are outstanding as the central trio, creating a group dynamic that's genuine. Even when the characters are behaving inappropriately, we respond to their friendship. The actors are so comfortable together that it's easy to believe the men they're portraying have a shared history. Spiro is also very good as Karen, a woman with no compunction about giving grief back to the guys with the same intensity with which they give it to her. This is how people behave in their small, working-class New Hampshire town.
I have to dance around this delicately, but Small Engine Repair is a scathing look at toxic masculinity. The guys become enraged when they see it in action, never realizing that it's something they revel in all the time. Insults they hurl and ways they talk about women are “jokes,” or just locker room talk in their eyes. When someone else engages in such behavior, they're suddenly appalled. The movie has its finger on the idea that spotting toxic masculinity is easy when scrutinizing the behavior of others, and much tougher to see in oneself. Pollono's screenplay is smart in depicting how it can become so pervasive within a group that nobody realizes how damaging it is until they see it demonstrated elsewhere.
Where the story goes drives home that theme in a way that'll stick with you after the film is over. Excellent performances from the cast help infuse it with relevance. If Small Engine Repair wasn't so superbly acted, the plot might have come off as preachy. Pollono, Bernthal, and Whigham keep it so real that the finale is searing and thought-provoking in all the right ways.
out of four
Small Engine Repair is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.