There is a long and storied history of turning plays into feature films. These adaptations have recently taken on a second wind as a way for actors to show their true potential and flex muscles not usually seen on screen. From last year’s The Father where Anthony Hopkins won best actor to hopeful Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, filmed plays can be some of the most acclaimed films of the year. Like The Father, Small Engine Repair is adapted to the screen and directed by the original playwright, John Pollono. As a first-time director, Pollono uses his volatile characters and theater roots to craft a pulpy potboiler of a film.
Small Engine Repair follows three childhood friends, Frank (John Pollono), Swaino (John Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Wigham) in Manchester, NH. While friends for over 30 years, they grew closer raising Frank’s daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) even as the three men’s personalities clash. With Crystal preparing to leave for UCLA, the men gather for the first time in months with Frank wishing to make amends. However, as the night progresses and the past is revealed, tensions rise especially with the arrival of a fourth man Chad (Spencer House) and repeated calls from Frank’s ex-wife Karen (Jordana Spiro).
While expanding from the original play’s setting of Frank’s repair shop and adding characters only referenced to, the film uses the theatrical quality of the text to enhance both the relationships and the tension. The film as a whole feels like a throwback with its small cast and few locations to exacerbate the emotions and tension. Early scenes set up the relationships of the men and their special care/connection to Crystal and that it grounds their combative nature. That nature bleeds through a lot of the early scenes and the reunion leading to a script that for some may be too crass or offensive. It’s a pulpy punchy script that captures the characters and lets them breathe compared to rushing through their development. Once their reunion gets going in earnest, it is a joy to watch how the three men act around each other and re-engage decades of friendship. As the tension begins to build when Chad makes his arrival to the shop, the tone begins to shift to a darker drama of uncovering true motives. While it may be easy to guess from the trailer where the plot goes, how it goes there and where it goes from there is surprising, darkly compelling and for many will be shocking.
What carries the film along it’s more outlandish moments are the performances. John Bernthal and Shea Whigham are respected character actors and John Pollono has been working on this play for over a decade Together, they carry it fully capturing the three men. It is a true treat to see Bernthal and Whigham get leading roles and make the most of it from Bernthal’s posturing and boastful Swaino to Whigham’s quieter and more tactful Packie. Writing and directing, Pollono knows exactly how to play Frank’s temper but also compassion and care for his daughter to manipulate audience sympathy. House captures the frat boy who feels invincible smug nature of Chad to leave no question as to his character and Bravo creates a very sympathetic character in her few scenes. To write how Spiro plays into the conclusion veers heavily into spoiler territory but she showcases a power into the third act.
A pulpy and potboiler of a throwback, Small Engine Repair is a taut and volatile dark comedic drama that melds into a suspenseful examination of revenge. It’s worth a watch in theaters or once it hits on demand.