Major spoilers ahead!
The 2021 black-comedy drama, Small Engine Repair, written by playwright-actor John Pollono based on his off-Broadway play of the same name from 2011, is the best film I’ve seen this year so far. And I have to say, whatever number two is (I’d have to think about it), it’s not even close. That’s how taken in I was by the story of three friends from Manchester, New Hampshire who meet up under the auspices of rekindling their friendship at Frank’s (played by Pollono) repair shop. The other two friends are Swaino (played by one of my favorite modern actors, Jon Bernthal) and Packie (played by Shea Whigham).
First, I think I connected so strongly to this because I also grew up among a core trio of friends and much like this film, the trio dynamic of budding boys (and now men) does serve as a meditation on masculinity, evolving masculinity and yes, sometimes toxic masculinity.
Frank is trying to keep his life together because he has a daughter, Crystal (played by Clara Bravo), but two issues continue to mess that up: 1.) He has a hot temper and that’s what landed him in jail prior to the current events of the film; and 2.) He’s still stuck on his firecracker, alcoholic wife, Karen (played by Jordana Spiro).
But he also thinks his friends from childhood, Swaino and Packie, are bad influences on him. At the beginning of the film, he decides to go out to a bar with them and it doesn’t take long for a bar fight to occur. For which Crystal oversees him pummeling a poor guy far beyond the point of self-defense. That temper is scary. And it scares Crystal.
Despite it all, Crystal, who is still in high school, got into her dream school in California and things seem promising, nonetheless.
After that bar fight, we fast-forward three months where the three childhood friends haven’t talked to each other. But Frank cajoles Packie to come to his repair shop by lying about having cancer and cajoles Swaino by saying he’s bringing strippers. That speaks to both of his friends’ character: Swaino is the traditional, beefed up loud-mouth macho man and Packie is the gawky, nerdy, empathetic friend, who gets made fun of for being “gay.” I put that in scare quotes to emphasize that obviously, at a certain time and still today, being those things — gawkier, nerdier, empathetic — were seen as effeminate and even gay in juxtaposition to Swaino’s sort of macho exterior.
And true to the sort of storytelling that happens when boys and men get together, they talk up their stories of being macho legends with women or just in general: We get those stories, particularly from Swaino of having sex with a woman he thought was a previous ex, but it turned out to not be her.
We get Packie’s favorite story about why they all love the garbage scotch they drink: Their abusive fathers actually invited, and seemed to be bonding, with them during the 1986 World Series when the Red Sox were on the cusp of breaking the Curse of the Bambino before Bill Buckner’s error. After that happened, the fathers blamed the boys and beat them silly. They were able to abscond to the woods with a bottle of scotch. Their bond was formed in toxic masculinity, blossomed in toxic masculinity and is held together by that prior bond. But that’s still superficial: Even though they won’t admit it, there is real love behind it at all. Love of each other. They can’t say that though. That would be “gay.”
As for Frank, his flashback story is meeting a woman, going back to her house for sex, but then she’s interrupted by her child. She ends up falling asleep in the child’s bed. Frank, instead of feeling scorned, finds the visual beautiful and he’s wistful about it, given how things fell apart with Karen for the familial relationship with Crystal.
I don’t know if it’s because it’s an adaptation of a play, the phenomenal actors involved or all of the above, but the film just bubbles with authenticity, intensity and an undercurrent of something amiss. For 103-minute film, it largely rides on that electric dialogue and it works so well. At least for me, as I mentioned growing up within such a trio, it felt so damn real. I could relate to all of it.
But as I said, something feels amiss and I started wondering, did Crystal die? I was already suspicious that we weren’t seeing her around and I figured Frank summoned his friends to get the courage to tell them what was going on. That he needed his best friends for moral support. After all, those two friends grew up alongside Crystal. It takes a village kind of thing.
There’s also the fact that Frank seems to be avoiding talking to Karen. What’s up with that?
When Anthony (played by Josh Helman) comes over, the story gets really awkward. Almost painful to watch awkward. Anthony is supposedly coming to deliver Frank and the gang Molly aka ecstasy. While Frank is ostensibly getting the rest of Anthony’s money, Anthony gets in on the macho legend storytelling. Except, this isn’t a legend. Hearing the story was soul-crushing.
Anthony, who is a college kid, tells the story of meeting a girl. He began coaxing her — grooming her like a predator is a better way of framing it — to send him lewder and lewder sexual pictures. Being the jerk (gotta keep it PG, folks) that he is, he then sends it to his buddies for more macho legending and laughing at her expense. When he invites her to a college frat party, everyone is calling her “pancake,” his designated nickname for her because of a particular anatomy feature. That’s when she realizes what’s going on and she runs home.
Eventually, the story takes the dark turn that the girl in question tried to kill herself with pills. And because Anthony has a big shot lawyer dad in Boston, the whole story was swept under the rug. Anthony has zero remorse and in fact, to him, the moral of the story is, “Don’t send naked pictures of yourself,” rather than evidencing his own scumbagery.
I should have known what was going on at this point, but I didn’t. Not until Frank begins interrogating Anthony about the story he was telling Swaino and Packie.
That’s when it hit me and my jaw dropped: The girl in Anthony’s story was Crystal. And I thought back to how in the beginning of the film, we see her taking a bunch of selfies of herself.
Frank also blames himself because when Crystal came to him about this, he basically said she was an idiot and is going to turn out just like her mother; the ultimate low-blow to deliver to Crystal. Thereafter, she took the pills.
And that’s when we realize why Frank summoned everyone to his repair shop: To kill Anthony and have his buddies help him dispose of the body. Karen eventually comes over because we learn she’s sober now and wants to be a better part of Crystal’s life. She didn’t know Crystal was in a coma at the hospital, though.
Once Frank clues her in, she goes to Anthony, who is secured with duct tape, and punches him repeatedly. Whew. I love me some ticked off mama bear action!
They realize, though, that it would be stupid to kill him. Instead, Swaino comes up with a new plan after learning earlier in the film about Instagram: They are going to blackmail Anthony by taking a picture of him in a compromising position with Packie.
Agh! Anthony is so gross. Like, we think that sort of toxic masculinity — beginning with Frank, Swaino and Packie’s fathers who were largely absent, but when they were around, they were abusive; then moving to the 1980s/1990s era where maybe the Franks, Swainos and Packies of the world are better fathers, but they still have some backward notions about women and gay men — is a thing of the past, but it’s only morphed into yet a new way, often with social media as its vessel.
Predators like Anthony, particularly who are often protected by money, prestige and class, certainly exist and I can’t endorse what Frank planned, but I certainly get his righteous anger.
The film reminds me a lot of the 2013 film, Prisoners, one of my favorite films, where they struggle like the characters in this film with some heavy, weighty decisions about revenge. Here, we also have the addition of meditations on friendship, masculinity, social media and class divisions.
A film like this, positioning itself as a black comedy, has to hit that right balance of humor with making you freaking feel something and making you think something and Small Engine Repair pulled that off, which is why it’s so far, my favorite film of the year.
I highly, highly recommend going out of your way to watch this small little film. You could even say it’s the little film that could. Yeah, I went there!