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SmallEngineRepairJohnPollono.jpg

Review: ‘Small Engine Repair’ is Sort of Mind-Boggling in Its Suggestion for How to Counter Revenge Porn

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | October 4, 2021 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | October 4, 2021 |


SmallEngineRepairJohnPollono.jpg

SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE FILM SMALL ENGINE REPAIR

Cinematic adaptations of stage productions don’t always work. Maybe in the theater, a song plays differently than it does in a movie, or maybe the overtly performative quality of being onstage is a benefit to a narrative, or maybe there is a distance created between us and a movie that doesn’t exist between us and being in the same room with actors, musicians, and crew. There certainly have been a number of musical adaptations this year that succeeded and failed to various degrees because of a combination of these factors: In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, Diana: The Musical. And then there’s Small Engine Repair, which isn’t a musical but is a theater-to-cinema adaptation, and which I think might have been problematique from the get go, no matter the medium.

Written and directed by John Pollono, who also stars in the film, Small Engine Repair is striving for authenticity and sincerity, but does so by relying on ever-increasing emotional extremes. Every relationship is fraught with some kind of anger and resentment, aggressive feelings that the film says all families and friendships must deal with, and then because they go through so much awfulness, they love each other even more. I don’t want to argue the validity of that, but the repetition with which Small Engine Repair belabors this point also denies it a true emotional arc. Pollono starts out in The Fighter mode, with a bickering father-daughter relationship and an array of chosen family members who are “clinging to the last branch of the lower middle class,” as a character here says, and you think this is going to be a movie about the complications of class, generational change, and morphing gender roles. That would have been fine!

But what we get in Small Engine Repair is a movie that, well, I’ve struggled to write about for weeks because I can’t even wrap my head around the plot twist we’re given. I think the movie thinks the plot twist is good entertainment and justified narratively? And I suppose I can imagine a black comedy in which a version of this ending would be darkly satisfying in a sort of taboo way. The ending presented, though (and I’ll share it at the very end of the review, under a SPOILER heading), is not particularly gratifying, nor do I think the script’s explaining away of our potential concerns is actually successful. It’s just tonally, narratively, and conceptually strange, and I almost wish Small Engine Repair had pushed further in its consideration of what we could tolerate. I’m not saying I want more violence in movies, necessarily, but maybe that would have been preferable to what we got?

OK, OK, let me stop talking around the end, so we can talk about the beginning and the middle, and then we jump into spoiler stuff. Small Engine Repair follows a trio of lifelong best friends: Frank Romanoski (Pollono), the brawny, paternalistic one; Packie Hanrahan (Shea Whigham), the intelligent, quirky, sensitive one; and Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal), the snarky, aggressive, sort of metrosexual one. They’ve been friends since childhood, and when Frank is sent to prison, Packie and Terrance step in to raise his daughter Crystal and keep her away from her no-good mother Karen Delgado (Jordana Spiro). Years later, Crystal has grown into a headstrong, passionate, vulgar, and very-protective-of-her-father high school senior (now played by Ciara Bravo).

Crystal and Frank fight, and yell and curse at each other, but they also share cigarettes and cook dinner together and agree that she’s smart enough to be worth the investment in out-of-state college tuition. Packie helped her with her college applications, and Terrance helps her with her wardrobe, and she smokes weed with them both, and she still has a good relationship with Karen despite Frank’s hesitation. She is beloved by everyone and anyone, and although Pollono’s script leans too much on the shock value of Crystal and Frank cursing each other out, the two actors have a believable-enough familial bond.

But then Small Engine Repair has a time jump and a tonal shift, and the latter, it cannot pull off. The gist is this: After a terrible bar fight that Packie and Terrance start that almost lands Frank back in prison, Frank cuts off contact with his friends for three months. When he engineers a get together, he tells each man a different story—but the friends’ connection is real enough that they accept his lies. They spend a few hours trading stories about the women they’ve slept with (of course there is a “One time this stripper put her finger in my butt” story), hitting each others’ groins, smoking four cigarettes at a time, rubbing their butts on each other, arguing about the usefulness of Instagram and social media; you know, guy stuff. (I have a lot of questions about Pollono scripting for Packie the line “We had a great discussion on Reza Aslan” when discussing his ongoing friendship with Terrance’s Pakistani ex-girlfriend.) And the night takes another weird turn when Frank invites a college-age drug dealer, Chad Walker (Spencer House), to their hangout, claiming that Chad is there to supply the molly Frank wants to do with his friends.

The Pollono/Bernthal/Whigham trio admittedly has some chemistry. But Bernthal and Whigham are both dialed up to 11, and a flashback scene that takes the characters back to a climactic childhood moment when their fathers all beat them at the same time tests our patience. And then there’s the reveal; let’s get into it.

SPOILERS ARE HAPPENING!

Chad is, frankly, the fucking worst. Pollono’s script could not have made him more of a typically spoiled son of a rich asshole: drives a huge SUV, is aghast at the idea of growing up with no Internet, and tells a story about a younger girl with “fucking gigantic” nipples from whom he received nude pictures. You can tell where this is going, right? You can tell where this is going. Packie and Terrance look at the pictures that Chad still has, and the girl is Crystal, and we learn that Crystal tried to kill herself once Chad sent the pictures around and humiliated her to his frat house and her entire school, and she’s been in a coma with little brain activity for the past two weeks, and Chad’s high-powered attorney father has protected him totally. “I feel bad, but it’s like my dad says, she shouldn’t have sent the pics to begin with … You gotta be fucking careful. Internet’s forever, bro,” and then Frank hits Chad in the face with a wrench. Great! And then we get a long scene where the three friends kill Chad, dismembering his body, draining it of blood, and dumping his limbs in various plastic tubs that they then fill with lye. OK! Fucked up, but there’s some storytelling commitment there that I guess I can appreciate! And after Chad says, “My father is going to sue the shit out of you. You guys are gonna get fucking ass raped in jail … Start stretching those fucking assholes!”, I sort of did want him to die!

But that’s not what really happens. Nor is what really happens Frank having a change of heart and deciding to let Chad go and turn himself in. What really happens is that Packie, Terrance, and the newly arrived Karen proclaim, “You’re saying we can’t outsmart some soft fucking pretty boy?” and they come up with a plan: They’re going to give Chad a taste of his own medicine. Packie takes out his penis, they force Chad to put it in his mouth, and they take a picture. If Chad keeps quiet about being kidnapped and threatened, they won’t release it. But if he tells his father or the police anything, Packie will use his social media connections to spread it far and wide. And then Frank, Karen, Packie, and Terrance go to see Crystal in the hospital, and she squeezes Frank’s hand in response to “Your family’s here,” and then Small Engine Repair wants us to cheer, I guess?

But I’m conflicted! Very conflicted. On the one hand, the film is right that prosecuting cyberbullying seems to be an incredibly difficult thing (most states have laws about this that they don’t really enforce), and that at a certain point the damage is absolutely irreversible for the victim. I can very much sympathize with that. On the other hand, there is something very off-putting for me about the film putting Crystal on such a pedestal, then not standing by her as any of this crap is happening, and then simply using her as a tool for three men to assert their masculinity and their loyalty. That doesn’t feel totally respectful to this character whom we are supposed to adore. And while Chad being forced into that photo, and being threatened with its spread in a way that evokes what happened to Crystal, is very intentional, it feels simultaneously gross and not like enough.

Thematically, it’s a betrayal of Crystal went through to say that perpetuating sexual violence is the only way to combat sexual violence. And narratively, Chad’s father is hyped up as this uber-connected lawyer pulling the strings with the police and the court; wouldn’t Chad just tell his daddy what happened? A bolder movie would have committed to Chad’s death, would have committed to the moral quandary that creates for Crystal’s family, and would have explored the ramifications of failing your children. (Yes, I know I’m describing The Place Beyond the Pines; that’s fine.) Perhaps it’s unfair to judge Small Engine Repair on the movie it’s not. But the movie it is is tonally discordant and even emotionally manipulative without the necessary character development, and Small Engine Repair doesn’t enthrall so much as it befuddles.

Small Engine Repair is available on VOD and for digital rental beginning on Oct. 1, 2021.

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Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.



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