John Pollono, director for the first time, imposes himself as a filmmaker of potential with Repair of small engines, now streaming on Hulu. Pollono went from a handful of on-camera roles to scripting a movie we forgot existed, Stronger (2017), to write, direct and star in this low-budget release, which not only mixes up a few different tonal textures, but also coaxes perhaps the best performances we’ve yet to see from Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham.
The essential: Manchester, New Hampshire is a working-class town where guys have Townie accents (you know, “wicked smahht” and that) and call each other slang interactions by their real names. Frank Romanowski is Frankie (John Pollono), Terrence Swaino (Jon Bernthal) is just Swaino, and Patrick Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) drops a few consonants to become Packy, which is probably better than Patty. They have the non-blood brother bond of the guys who have been busting their balls since they were kids. Frankie just got out of jail with a cast on his arm and stitches in his eye. Swaino and Packy took care of Frankie’s baby girl, Crystal, while he was in the jingle, but when Frankie tries to hug her, she cries and clings to Swaino’s shoulder. Frankie looks sad but his expression also tells us he knows the deal. Transitions are difficult for children. It’ll take a minute, but she’ll be back.
She did it. She had to. Now, Crystal is a teenage girl about to enter college, raised by her single father. His mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro), gives us the impression that she does a lot of things in excess and is probably in and out of her life. We moved in with Frankie and Crystal the evening after his temper got the better of him and he put his fist in the drywall. They argued about how she wants to go to UCLA, and he doesn’t want her to go to UCLA, probably for all the obvious reasons. But he comes back. He is calm now and makes her sit down. Do it, he said. Just go to UCLA. We will find out. She is happy. Its future is bright.
Besides, it’s Christmas. Packy and Swaino come to dinner. These three guys love Crystal to death. They’re kind of stuck in Manchester and she comes out and they’re all thrilled. Afterwards, Karen comes to take Crystal shopping. She exchanges vulgar gestures and unpleasant jokes with Packy and Swaino, who dislike her for the mess she regularly makes in their best friend’s life. Frankie is the most stable presence in the girl’s life, providing her with a comfortable home and lots of love. He’s quit drinking and takes Karen’s malarkey in stride. Most of the time, he keeps his psychological pressure cooker on low heat. He hasn’t solved his problem, but he’s dealing with it, that’s how life works, isn’t it? Packy and Swaino persuade him to go to the bar (“the bahhh”), where they will drink beer (“beeah”) and he will have a seltzer (“seltzah”). The evening turns to shit because, as always, Packy and Swaino argue, which is the exact reason why Frankie doesn’t do it anymore. Karen shows up and throws throttle on the fire and before you know it Frankie is out of her mind, banging some guy’s head against the bar.
Also before you know it, three months pass. In the fallout of the brawl, Packy, Swaino, and Frankie are all separated, but Frankie does something about it. He makes up lies to get them to come to his little engine repair shop, telling Packy he has cancer and telling Swaino he hired strippers. The fiber doesn’t last and before you know it they are squeezing it. You have to hose down these things below deck and, let’s face it, Packy and Swaino probably aren’t mature enough to clear the river, and now in their 40s, they may never be. But there is a “but” here, which you might have suspected. In an earlier scene, Frankie hits the liquor store, red flag no. 1. He splurges big on Johnnie Walker Blue, red flag no. 2. And when the guys arrive, he pours it into three glasses. You might think he’s just celebrating, but it definitely seems like there’s something else going on here.
What movies will this remind you of? : Repair of small engines is Reflux meets blue ruin meets The city meets Pineapple Express meets reservoir dogs. And it mostly works!
Performance to watch: You go to like Whigham – an ever-underrated character actor – as a simple man who is actually not so simple, whose crass demeanor hides many layers, which slowly and quietly emerge as the story unfolds. progress.
Memorable dialogue: Amidst all the crude, somewhat clever, occasionally funny repartee — mostly between guys, always brimming with F-bombs — the most notable line is a simple one, when Frankie says, “I was wrong.”
Sex and skin: Crude verbal descriptions of sexual encounters.
Our opinion : Pollono makes some ingenious transitions Repair of small engines from gritty blue-collar indie drama to bro-hangout comedy to skull-in-a-vice suspense thriller, using good solid character fodder to keep it from crumbling at the seams. Stylistically, the film is a crude but workable staple of David Gordon Green, Ben Affleck, Judd Apatow, Jeremy Saulnier and Quentin Tarantino, and its abrupt shifts in tone make it feel a bit structurally run down. But it’s endearing, like an old muscle that goes from clunker to badass machine when it’s assembled from spare parts of different colors.
And credit Pollono for sending his vehicle down a twisty road, rolling straight and roaring through hairpin turns. The film’s narrative of Where the Hell Goes keeps our eyes on the screen, comfortable at times and uneasy at others. It delivers on its suspenseful promise in a reasonable and acceptable way, reaching a conclusion that doesn’t quite have the excitement of many scenes ahead of it. Pollono opens a can of worms and never quite finds a way to put the lid back on, which is either sloppy or intriguing – or, more likely, both. It uses social media as a plot device and subtextual springboard, and plays with and subverts ideas about toxic masculinity that become entangled and more difficult the more we think about them.
But the film’s best quality is the character work of its three leads, who embrace the qualities of their types for comedic effect and transcend them for dramatic effect. Pollono carries with him an almost lyrical conflict, struggling with whether he wants to be a big man who kicks someone’s ass, or the bigger man who holds back his monkey rage and does the right thing. Bernthal goes big as a ladies’ man with the slick Ducati and slick hair, but shows a few cracks in the facade, and Whigham is terrific as an eccentric weirdo who’s a lot smarter than he looks, and could be somewhere on the autism spectrum; these are perhaps the best performances yet for these two veteran actors who are so often locked into small, stereotypical roles in bigger movies. These three actors really get the movie’s engine running.
Our call: SPREAD IT. To paraphrase this guy in this space movie, you’ll find Repair of small engines is full of surprises.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.