Adapting a play for the big screen is no easy feat. Sometimes inflating the scale can end flattening the story or rendering it ridiculous. Other times, the choices made to make it “cinematic” poison what was interesting about the play in the first place.
Small Engine Repair Dwells on The Things We Cannot Fix
I mention all this as a preamble to noting that Small Engine Repair, based on a play written by this movie’s lead actor-director-writer John Pollono, feels like one of the most effortless stage-to-screen adaptations I’ve seen in some time. There are no typical signs of theatrical adaptations like shoe-horned in location changes or eternal repetition of two-shots. Learning that it’s a play adaptation honestly caught me unaware. I can’t recall the last time that happened.
This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is worth seeing, of course. However, in the case of Small Engine Repair, the movie itself has plenty to offer.
Frank Romanowski (Pollono) is an alcoholic with a temper. However, he gave up drinking and largely managed to wrangle his temper for his toddler daughter Crystal. Alongside his two childhood friends Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie Hanrahan (Shea Whigham), he raised her to a foul-mouthed, intelligent, artistic, ambitious young woman (Ciara Bravo) a semester away from going to art college.
Crystal’s still very much using mom Karen Delgado (Jordana Spiro) swings through town for a visit while Packie and Terrance take Frank out so they can have fun and he can drink a seltzer. Events quickly go awry, and Frank throws everyone out of his life but his daughter. Months later, he invites the duo out to his garage (the Small Engine Repair of the title) for a night of reconciliation. Something, however, feels deeply off.
In a lot of ways, this is two different films. The first is a slice of life film about life in Manchester, NH (Manch-Vegas to the locals) amongst those clinging to the last rung of the lower middle class to paraphrase Crystal. The second is a slowly escalating thriller that keeps you in the dark for almost as long as the characters. The fact that both integrate well is a credit to Pollono’s initial storytelling and subsequent adaptation.
There is one moment that stands out like a gleefully violent sore thumb. Without spoiling it, however, I can say the film accounts for it fairly quickly. It still grinds the movie to a bit of a halt, but it also has a very dark, humorous kick that gives the moment some appeal.
While the performances are individually strong, they don’t always gel with one another. Pollono and Bravo seem well-matched and their interactions feel like you’d expect between a single dad and the daughter he raised while growing up himself. On the other hand, the dynamics between Bernthal, Wigham, and Pollono feel shakier. As I noted, all three are good individually. The struggle comes with the idea that this trio had been friends for life.
Part of the problem comes from the familiarity of the characters. We have seen this dynamic before: the responsible one, the weird one, and the lothario. It’s easy to recall numerous examples and even easier to compare the interactions between Wigham, Pollono, and Bernthal to all those similar triads.
As is often the case in these sorts of stories, the women lack much to do. On the page, Spiro’s role is a flat iteration of the bad mom from the lower middle class we’ve seen many times. Think Amy Ryan in Gone, Baby, Gone for reference. However, Spiro gives Karen a bit more depth, especially in the film’s back third when she’s unexpectedly pulled into whatever game Frank’s playing. For someone who predominantly knows her from the sitcom My Boys, her turns impressed. Sadly, no other woman character on-screen comes close to her depth.
These flaws don’t ultimately stall out Small Engine Repair. As a New Englander with family who has lived or still lives in those kinds of towns and communities, the sense of place is undeniable. Small Engine Repair fully realizes the mix of camaraderie and isolation and the sense of both comfort and imprisonment that comes with it.
The film is also fitfully capable of genuinely poetic scenes, probably the most obvious sign of its stage origins. Especially affecting is Frank telling his friends about a date with a single mom that ends on a bittersweet note. The scene in total ends up a nice microcosm of everything that works in the movie. It’s sad, sweet, raunchy, and undercut by a vaguely queasy sense of the foreboding.
Yes, a too gruesome moment there or a sense of interpersonal disconnect here clangs now. Cliches, archetypes, or tropes—whatever you prefer to label them—abound. But, ultimately, the execution is what matters. Like the movie suggests, sometimes what’s worth holding on to is enough to overcome the bad.