Beneath the heavy work jackets and thick New Hampshirite dialects are three lifetime friends who care deeply about a young girl. They would do anything to protect her. The boys think they’re just having another outing, as they’ve been summoned to a snowblower and mower repair shop for some casual drinking. As the night develops, a dark secret lingers over the evening, threatening to explode in violence at any moment. Adapted by John Pollono from his play of the same name, Small Engine Repair is a lightweight dark comedy that turns into a lightweight thriller. It’s the kind of small movie that you’re rooting for the whole way. While the plot remains boilerplate simple, and the twist is perhaps more obvious than the film thinks it is, it’s worth spending time with the characters, while getting there.
Our crew is a delight. As they have known each other since childhood, the film plays closely with that earned familiarity. It feels like we’ve always known them, have known guys just like them. Hard workmanlike men who have not advanced their careers but have advanced their friendships. They know what really matters. John directs himself as Frank, the center of the friend group. He’s the center of the group because of his little girl, Crystal (Ciara Bravo). She talks just like these crusty men, appropriating their midlife crises as teenage crisis. She’s just turned 17 and is at the age where she’s smart enough not to trust her dysfunctional mother Karen (Jordana Spiro), but knows well enough that she is actually the glue holding these guys together. When she goes off to college, they are faced with a hard reality, and the friends have a falling out, stemming from too much drink and a bar fight, both common behaviors for them.
Something tragic happens. And, Frank has a bright idea about how to handle it. He has to bring the crew together. He sends for Packie (Shea Whigham), lying that he has cancer. Packie is often the group punching bag, firstly because he’s always chided for looking like a Leprechaun, secondly, because he’s trying too hard to stay young and maintain his social media, and the third problem is that he’s deeply empathetic. But still, despite his empathetic traits, he’s awfully pissed upon arrival, swinging into the shop in a real panic on a diminutive BMX bike, eager to be there for his friend, only to find nothing amiss. “Nobody has cancer? That is fucking infuriating.” Swaino (Jon Bernthal) is the player of the group. He can talk to women well and has a certain swagger but remains in arrested development, having never matured emotionally. He’s told there will be strippers at the repair shop but there are only the two men. None of the men can stay upset with one another for very long. They hang out and drink Scotch, like they did when they were kids, first forming their relationship around alcohol, while escaping their abusive parents. And nothing ever changed in that dynamic. They still hide with each other, drowning their pain and fear with consumption, while bottling up all of their rage. But this night is going to be a little different. Frank has invited a college drug dealer he met while playing basketball, who is bringing the crew some Molly. He’s also harboring a dark secret that’s going to change everything.
It’s best to approach Small Engine Repair as a hangout movie. We get to see these men operate within the sphere of their working understanding of each other. Without any one player of the ensemble, the whole production would fall apart. The story, as it stands, is neither deep, nor surprising enough to count on. The film does try and bargain with its structure, emphasizing non-revelations as though it’s saying anything we could not already surmise from the premise. There are three men and they care deeply about a young girl. There is a secret and a new, younger boy enters a situation with an older generation who will do anything to protect a young girl. It’s pretty clear what’s happening there. Now, even in its obviousness, there is a certain charm in it all. It gets to the heart of a generational divide. How an older generation lived a tough life, generally being knuckleheads, but without the permanence of the internet to damn them. And, how younger generations, over-connected and too eager to share, are liable to ruin their own lives, but especially the lives of others. It’s a scenario where the characters are good, the actors embody them well, but none of it especially leads anywhere. As a dire note, the ending twist is homophobic, and one of the characters casually calling out homophobia only to partake in it, is disheartening, and a poor way to conclude that arc. In a roundabout way, it also ends up playing straight into that most common contemporary genre: it’s a basic revenge film, that only hides that basic element, but wants to surprise a tired audience with it. It won’t work, but it’ll be a bit of fun getting there.
It’s still worth rooting for a good, small movie. Small Engine Repair is the kind of small movie that sufficiently does most of what it tasks itself to do, and then does a little more. It’s a genuine joy sitting in on the repair shop shenanigans. Maybe you’ve hung out with an older generation before as a young person. Here is a film that sees that situation clearly and gets to explore exactly how that feels and what it means about both generations. The bleak comedy side of the picture is well-intentioned and fun to watch. The second half, where it becomes a thriller, is obvious, but still fun to watch. It’s a hard sell with a movie like Small Engine Repair, but it’s still a film I’d like more people to see. For its winning characters and successful adaptation of the play’s structure, it may still be well worth seeking out. It’s a worthwhile hang, sitting in with that gritty New Hampshire repair shop. These three old men have something to tell you about technology. By the end, you may wish that’s all they had to tell you.