Back in 2013, I very nearly caught John Pollono’s buzzy Off-Broadway production of Small Engine Repair. Honestly, I was slightly bummed that I missed it, as I kept hearing how great it was. Now in 2021, I finally have a chance to see the story come to life via John Pollono’s directorial feature film debut. So the first question then must be a simple one: does it live up to the years worth of expectations built up in my head? Unfortunately, the straightforward answer is firmly negative. Small Engine Repair is dated, homophobic, misogynistic, and even sexist. The ideas feel firmly rooted in another time; watching this group of friends share bro-y stories and anecdotes for a good eighty percent chunk of the film is so off-putting I could scream.
Set in Manchester, New Hampshire, the story plants us in the lives of three lifelong friends: Terrance (Jon Bernthal), a flirty dope with “a diseased dick”; Packie (Shea Whigham), his best friend who tells bad jokes but seems tech-and-app-savvy; and Frank (John Pollono), an impulsive dad fresh out of a prison stint. Many years later, Frank’s daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) is grown up and close to all three men, who have basically raised her together. When an unthinkable tragedy happens, Terrance, Packie, and Frank must get together to defend Crystal’s honor.
To be quite honest, a large portion of this film had me rolling my eyes in disgust. Just because the movie acknowledges that it is homophobic doesn’t mean that it excuses any of it. It becomes aggravating when you have not a single person to root for, because every character is clearly an awful person. Attempted technology jokes and Instagram as a literal segment of the story is just tired at this point. At first, I was enjoying the addition of a cute jock (played by Spencer House) into the narrative. Not even he can resuscitate the film, though it does get significantly better in the final act before it becomes grossly homophobic again without hesitation.
It may be difficult to pinpoint an exact line of dialogue or situation (excusing the one near the very end) that is explicitly homophobic in nature. However, when one character goes on a rant about getting “ass-raped” in jail (“start stretching those assholes!”), I lost all sympathy. Why is it that the only scenes that really work here are the meanest? The accents were a tough sell to begin with. The fact that Small Engine Repair completely wastes a significant portion on petty antics and stories objectifying women when the richness of the final act is baked into the script, made me want to throw something at my screen. I understand that the issues may lie in the text itself adapted from the Off-Broadway show, but is it too much to ask for a little nuance and care given to a storyline involving bullying and suicide? Perhaps Small Engine Repair is in need of a tune-up…
Small Engine Repair forces you to open wide when it debuts in theaters on Friday September 10th, from Vertical Entertainment.