Movie Review: Brotherly Bonding turns raw and complicated — “Small Engine Repair”

There’s one thing you can say for a melodrama that gives you whiplash. It must be quite a ride.

Actor (“This is Us”) turned writer-director John Pollono brings his off-Broadway slow boil of a thriller “Small Engine Repair” to the screen in an immersive, Big Twisty and somewhat uneven star vehicle that still delivers the goods. A great supporting cast will do that for you.

It’s a slice of Flyover America male bonding built around a trio of friends played by top dog character actors Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham, with Pollono holding his own with two of the best. “Engine” starts clumsily — no, we don’t need to to have the nickname “Manch Vegas” that locals pin on Manchester, New Hampshire explained — and meanders ever onward establishing the characters, revealing their flaws and flashing back to explore their lifelong history.

And then it turns dark on a dime. And turns darker. And still, in all that lethal seriousness, it finds a laugh or two with these mugs, how they talk and what they find funny.

Pollono is Frankie, owner of said “Small Engine Repair” shop, a guy we meet as he gets out of jail, his arm in a cast. It was a short stay for this single dad. Fortunately, he’s got his childhood pals Swaino (Bernthal) and Packie (Whigham) to look after little Crystal.

Swaino’s an unfiltered blowhard who brags about sex and “makes one too many gay jokes” to not take a ribbing about that. Frankie’s jail stint was where he put down the bottle and what made him give up bar brawling. And while he might have raised Crystal (Ciara Bravo) to have his filthy vocabulary and coarse sense of humor, a few years later she’s headed for college.

Packie seems on-the-spectrum and off-center, the sort of talker who knows everybody’s buttons and clumsily pushes them at just the wrong times. But he’s smarter than he looks.

“Small Engine Repair” spends its first hour just hanging with these three, reveling in their “one-legged duck swims in a circle” witticisms, sex life anecdotes and red letter days and nights from their collective past.

It’s New England. Yeah, they have a “Game Six” story.

But one bar fight too many means they have a big falling out. We’re left wondering what it would take to bring them back together.

No matter where the story goes, I laughed a lot at the weather-and-whisky-worn rapport of our power trio. Whigham’s way with Packie’s many layers of tetchiness is a delight. Don’t use this word or make light of that subject. He’s thin-skinned about it. ALL of it.

“As an Irish American, I f—–g offense at that!”

Bernthal has a lot of fun with a brawny, butch and over-compensating lug whose friends don’t know he still does group facials with his sisters.

Bravo (“Cherry,” TV’s “Wayne”) throws her weight around in this bantering bucket of testosterone.

Jordana Spiro sinks her teeth into Karen, the blowsy, high-mileage tart who rarely sees her daughter Crystal, or the guy who fathered her.

Pollono’s Frankie is the alleged grownup in their midst, and even he is quick with the un-PC putdown.

“Who without a vagina actually f—–g SAYS that?”

As a director, Pollono doesn’t do much that doesn’t signal “stagebound” in turning his play into a film. But that “Game Six” anecdote, which starts out nostalgic, turns grim and shocking and finds one helluva punchline to exit, is the film’s great set-piece. Packie tells the story, and Pollono has the adult Whigham place himself back in their collective childhood, watching the World Series with two child actors playing his friends as they were then.

The abrupt shifts in focus and tone are jarring, and the finale feels a lot less satisfying than it should. But “Small Engine Repair” is the sort of slice-of-life, drinking buddies tested melodrama that will resonate with a lot of American men, and the kind of movie that’ll play in Nash-Vegas, O-Vegas, Minni-Vegas or Manch-Vegas without some actor/playwright/filmmaker patronizingly explaining the obvious to us.

Rating: R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use

Cast: John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Ciara Bravo, Jordana Spiro and Shea Whigham.

Credits: Scripted and directed by John Pollono, based on his play. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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