Stars proud of provocative ‘Small Engine Repair’

A night of partying turns ugly in “Small Engine Repair.”

Frank, Swaino and Packie, longtime pals living in Manchester, New Hampshire, reunite in Frank’s repair shop for booze, steaks and watching fights on TV. But there’s also a hidden agenda at play here, one that will test their volatile, yet loyal friendship; their ideas of right and wrong; and, in a sense, their chances of survival. Along the way, the film addresses everything from class division to toxic masculinity.

“Small Engine Repair” (R, 103 minutes, in theater) originated as a 2011 play by John Pollono, who wrote and directed the seriocomic movie and plays Frank, a devoted single father with a violent temper. The New Hampshire native — and graduate of UNH — wrote the screenplay for 2017’s “Stronger,” a drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal about the Boston Marathon bombing, and appeared on the TV series “This Is Us.”

He and Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”), who plays ladies’ man Swaino and serves as executive producer, and Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”), who plays socially awkward, vulnerable Packie, all speak via Zoom of how proud they are of their new film.

Appearing in “Small Engine Repair” are, from left, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono. (Vertical Entertainment)

Noting the movie’s stage origins, Pollono, 49, says theater was “a place to create work that was provocative and challenge not just the culture but the audience, create a dialogue.”

“Like, ‘Let’s talk about stuff. Provoke me. Let’s talk real and not just regurgitate safe things to me. Don’t make me feel better; let’s question things together, (as) a community. …

“I’ve written a lot of plays, and I was always attracted to playwrights who made me feel uneasy. I’ve always wanted to feed into that tradition … going into places that I really felt were morally gray and complicated, and wouldn’t be neatly resolved. …

“I really was interested in going for that moral ambiguity, but, more importantly, creating a visceral thing and, on top of that, I wanted it to feel real and entertaining, and to be a roller coaster, and to be funny at any given moment. I didn’t want to smack you and lecture you.”

Bernthal, 44, says he participated in an early play reading of “Small Engine Repair” and asked Pollono afterward if he could work with him on it.

“The experience of doing this play was so electric and so unbelievable,” Bernthal says. “I’ve always found the writing to be so funny and so honest and authentic, but also it just has so much heart, and you believe these guys have chosen each other and love each other.”

Since starting work together on the play about 10 years ago, Bernthal says, he and Pollono have “stayed close.”

“He’s one of my best friends … and we’ve always talked about doing this (adapting the play for the screen).”

To that end they brought in Whigham, 52, who immediately identifies what drew him to the project:

“It’s the challenge, man; it’s always the challenge.

“How close can we get to creating this world … and still entertain? I want to entertain. I’m not 18 anymore, where we throw something up and only two people come. I mean, if we do something we have to entertain, and I think we do that.

“But I think we also ask questions. I’m not into message films. I don’t choose message films; I don’t do that. But, at the same time, if you can ask yourself somewhere in this piece, ‘What would I do?’ that’s the type of film I’m interested in doing. …

“This part, I’m not gonna lie. It scared me. I told them, ‘I don’t know if I’ll get there, man; I’m scared on this one.’ And I like that. I love that. You want to be challenged. We’re just enormously proud of this picture.”

Pollono says he has his own interpretation of the film’s theme, though he “would never want to put too fine a point on it, because … when you capture truth it’s open to many interpretations.”

“I would say the clear motivation for the film is that when we arc toward love, we have peace and prosperity, and when we arc away from that, that’s when it’s dangerous.”

Bernthal adds that it’s not just about finding peace, that “when they’re supporting each other, and nurturing each other … they’re like a well-oiled machine. …”

“Even in their zany, ridiculous way, they can kind of solve the day, they can figure it out, they can lift each other up. When they’re fractured, and pecking at each other, and away from each other and disconnected, they start to fall apart.

“Friends and family, always hold them close. That’s definitely a big takeaway.”

“Small Engine Repair” is the kind of movie that’s better seen without knowing its specifics beforehand. But it’s fair to say its ending can leave a moviegoer uneasy. And that’s intentional. The film, Pollono notes, deals with troubling issues in which, as a society, moviegoers are complicit.

“If you solve a story with a neat little bow, you let them off the hook. And we do not do that.”

On a lighter note, Frank has a pet dog in the film, and the stars rave about the charismatic canine, who died after filming.

“That was my dog, Boss, who was at every rehearsal of the play, every night of the production. As an old guy, he made it all the way through (the movie); we lost him right after,” Bernthal says. “It was great that he could be part of the team through the whole piece.”

“We actually dedicated the movie to Boss,” Pollono adds. A photo of Boss appears at the end of the credits.

“I always said he was the Steve McQueen of dogs. He was like the coolest guy in the room. Men, women fawned over him. He really was an extraordinary soul; I’ve never been around such a soulful dog like that. He was exceptional, and to have him in the movie was such a beautiful grace note to the whole process.

“He hit his marks; he was like a star dog. When we were editing the film together, it was like, ‘Jesus, Boss did everything you could ask of him!’”

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Play It Again, Tim

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org (archived shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/). He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.