SMALL ENGINE REPAIR (2021) - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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Although the sun’s squeezing the last drop of sweat from the Summer season, this week’s new release reminds us of the cooler temps and the upcoming Winter holidays when family and friends will be getting together for celebrations and more than a few homecomings. The latter is the main theme of this tale of a trio of best buds. And their relationship has its fair share of ups and downs, running hot and cold. But somehow, despite their often volatile history, a bond is formed. On a dark windy night, that bond is tested, perhaps stretched to its breaking point. And it all happens under a flickering sign that proclaims SMALL ENGINE REPAIR.

It all begins at that backyard garage shop in Manchester, New Hampshire as lifelong pals ‘Swaino’ (Jon Bernthal) and ‘Packie’ (Shea Whigham) greet the owner, Frank (John Pollono) upon his return from an “extended stay” in the “Greybar Hotel”. Ah, but it’s also a “father and child reunion” as the guys have brought along Frank’s toddler daughter Crystal, who’s more comfortable in the arms of Terry than her almost forgotten papa. The story springs ahead a dozen years or so as Frank, now the main parent of teenage Crystal (Ciara Bravo), hosts a pre-Christmas dinner for her and her former caretakers. The mood is elevated when Crystal finds out that she’s been accepted to a distant college. But the high spirits are somewhat deflated by the arrival of Frank’s ex, and Crystal’s mama, the abrasive Karen (Jordana Spiro). She’s just in from the West Coast and wants to whisk her gal away for a night of shopping. So, how do the guys restore their holiday spirits? They continue the party at a nearby “watering hole”, naturally. But the merriment is shattered when Swaino and Packie try to talk up some young lovelies. Which leads to a big barfight with some younger “townies”. As the sirens’ wail gets louder, the trio escapes into the night. We then fast forward a couple of months as Frank decides to repair the rift between his two “best buds”. He invites both (without each other knowing) to his garage shop for a day of booze, steaks, and a big “pay-per-view” fight on the big screen TV. After some trepidation, the two estranged “bros” reconnect. As the sun sets, things take a darker turn with the arrival of a local preppy college “dealer” named Chad (Spencer House), who Frank has befriended. Ah, but there’s more than “Molly” on the menu as the true purpose of the day is finally revealed. Will these “three amigos” do anything in the name of friendship?

The “alpha dog” in this motley pack of mutts is Bernthal as the boasting blustery Swaino. He’s pure confidence with little to back it up. We can almost hear the gears turning in Swaino’s brain as Bernthal squints his eyes and amplifies his tone as Swaino tries to con the ladies while also bluffing himself as his younger “pursuits’ scoff and roll their eyes. At the opposite end of the canine spectrum is Whigham’s Packie, who seems to always “bare his belly” in submission to his superiors. Whigham’s confused stare projects a child-like vulnerability as he tries to “keep up” but his socially awkward behavior puts him back in his “place”. The least “showy” of the three leads is Pollono’s Frank, whose quiet demeanor tries to hold his furious violent temper in check. In many scenes, he’s merely observing as he waits to unleash that inner beast. His two pals talk a “big game” but Pollono’s glare tells us that he will follow through on any threat. A big source of his anger is his toxic, belittling ex Karen, played with brassy bad-girl spunk by the energetic Spiro. She makes Karen a true tornado of chaos. It’s easy to see where Crystal gets much of her “tough chick” attitude. Bravo has the “stones” to spare, but she’s also the real glowing beacon of optimism for the group so battered by life. She’s got a chance to escape, and Bravo conveys that hunger for a brighter future. And as a flip on that, House’s Chad is the poster boy for pampered privilege as his smug smirk oozes with condescension while dealing with those out of his social status.

Oh, I didn’t mention that Frank…er..Mr. Pollono actually wrote and directed this, based on his stage play and short film? And he does a fairly decent job with the pacing, knowing when to focus on one of the principals and when to capture the big action set pieces. Unfortunately, some of the film’s stage roots are showing as many indoor exchanges are abruptly curtailed so that the camera can get some of the exterior scenery. Sometimes it helps to bust up the long conversational exchanges, but more often it makes us wonder why they want to “brave the chill”. And there are a couple of fantasy sequences inserted for more cinematic effect, though a nostalgic memory is given a bizarro slant when ten-year-old boys play young Frank and Terry while the adult Whigham is his “kid-self”. And some of the dialogue just doesn’t ring true, especially Chad’s snarky threats, or Packie’s “out of nowhere” “c#*%-blocking” of Terry (what guy would do that). It doesn’t help that these lines are smothered with thick dialects that seem somewhere between Seth Meyer’s “Boston Accent” movie trailer parody and SNL’s recent “Murdur Durdur” spoof. It all leads up to a convoluted crazy “slap-dash” conclusion that feels all too tidy. But mostly we’re just worn out by the macho “preening” which makes SMALL ENGINE REPAIR a big loud letdown.

1.5 Out of 4

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR opens in select theatres on Friday, September 10, 2021

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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