We New Englanders take special note of movies, small or large, filmed in our backyard. Such was the case when the indy picture, Small Engine Repair, came across my radar. The movie is set in Manchester, New Hampshire, or, as the opening scrawl informs us, ‘Manch-Vegas.’ It’s a pejorative used to indicate Manchester’s lackluster appearance and vibe (as opposed to the glitz and the glam of Las Vegas).

However, the film doesn’t capture anything unique about Manchester. It could well have been set in Lawrence, Massachusetts or Bridgewater, Connecticut or Pawtucket, Rhode Island. These are similar cities in New England that have been left behind by time—once strong and noble middle class communities now rife with drug addiction, unemployment, and despair.

The writer-director and star of the movie, John Pollono, grew up in New Hampshire and used this background as inspiration to write a play which won acclaim some ten years ago. Fast forward to 2021, when Small Engine Repair became a film. I’m not sure how much changed from stage to screen, but the movie version doesn’t seem to carry the authority its native-to-New Hampshire creator ostensibly promises.

Sometimes basic geography doesn’t seem to add up. The lead character Frank has a daughter named Crystal who is a high school senior. She gets entangled with a college frat boy who attends Northeastern, which is located in the heart of Boston. It’s clear Pollono wanted to inject class conflict into the film, but a high school senior from Manchester travelling to Boston to party with college students? Without traffic (and Boston is legendary for its traffic) it’s an hour’s drive, and there is so much terrain (not just the physical) between these two worlds it stretches credulity to hang the plot of the movie on this relationship. To the outsider, this might not be apparent, but to a local it stands out as far fetched.

What’s more, character-wise, the relationship between Crystal and the college kid (named Chad) doesn’t hold water. At the outset, Crystal is presented as 18 going on 35 in the wisdom and street smarts category. Her father and his friends are more childish and frivolous than she, yet by the movie’s midpoint, Crystal is duped and used by someone with whom she would most likely not cross paths—much less be conned by.

There are many things to like about Small Engine Repair, but consistency might not be one of them. It begins as a film in the mold of a modest drama, say The Wrestler, but concludes as more of a thriller or crime story a la Winter’s Bone. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and I think I might have preferred one or the other—not a hybrid.

Perhaps the play did not have enough plot, and Pollono felt the need to make a character study more story driven. But the character work is where the film excels, and where it should have stayed. Small Engine Repair is a forgotten man (and woman) film in the tradition of Mean Streets and Fat City, and, more recently, The King of Staten Island and Nomadland.

Frank, the lead, is a single father always one disappointment away from returning to the bottle. His best friends Swaino and Packie, are, respectively, a hell raiser and a basket case with no job and a dirt bike for transportation. Frank’s ex-wife is a drug addict. There are countless towns and cities across the nation, which have sunk after industry pulls out and times change, and the plights of the people who try to hang on through the changes are compelling.

Yet Small Engine Repair, though intriguing as this kind of story, doesn’t quite, as noted, cement the viewer in a unique place, as was done for milieus such as the boxing world of Stockton, CA (Fat City) or the fringes of the gangster world of New York (Mean Streets) or the community of displaced wanderers in the American west (Nomadland) or the aimlessness of youth post 9-11 in Staten Island (The King of Staten Island).

A movie about Manchester should have focused on its sui generis pathos; that is, its former status as a milling and textile boomtown. It would have been more appropriate to make Frank the descendant of millworkers. It’s hard to understand what is unique about the story of Manchester when the lead character has no connection to the city’s rise and fall.

The movie’s heart is in the right place, and at times it sparkles with cracker jack writing and inventive filmmaking choices. The title itself is a nice play on words, Small Engine Repair. Frank is a mechanic, and the title promises the work he does to earn money and the work he and his friends must do on themselves to evolve. Yet we never see Frank under the hood of a car. In fact, I didn’t even know he had a garage until about half way through the film when the architecture of the movie shifts from drama to crime story, and so the metaphor, though suggested in the title, is not fully actualized.

And to further disembody Manchester, Pollono has his players speak with Boston accents so thick one would think the voice training they received for their rolls was a marathon screening of Black Mass, The Fighter, The Town, and perhaps even those Sam Adams beer commercials with the obnoxious cousin from Boston.

In this regard, cliches abound. Besides accents that could have sprung from the viral parody Boston Accent: the Movie, the language is almost wholly foul, the drinking and doping rampant, and the ball busting more severe than a kick in the groin. Forgotten men or not, these characters fit every shopworn tale of lower-middle class Bostonians, and I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts most people in Manchester don’t sound like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.

I was also disappointed to learn, as the end credits rolled, the film was shot in New York. At the outset, there are a few exterior drone shots of Manchester but after that, it seems the tax incentives New York offers productions were too appealing to get the filmmakers on the ground in New Hampshire

All this said, I’d still rather see these kinds of movies than the latest Marvel offering. Films like Small Engine Repair are trying to offer something that big budget movies are incapable of currently. Heart. Feeling. Passion. A reflection of ourselves.

Many years ago, a big budget movie like, say, ET knew how to do this. A boy whose father is absent finds strength and meaning in friendship with an alien. The alien from another solar system or galaxy is more consequential to him than his actual parent. Marvel wouldn’t understand that small irony at all.

So it’s left to films like Small Engine Repair to do this lifting, and even it if doesn’t fully succeed, it’s headed in the right direction—North on Interstate 93 to meet the Merrimack River which cuts through the heart of ‘Manch-Vegas.’

Written &

Directed By:

 

John Pollono

Produced By:

Rick Rosenthal, Peter Abrams, Jon Bernthal, Noah Rothman

Starring:

Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, John Pollono, Ciara Bravo, Spencer House

Runtime:

103 mins

Rating:

R

Genre:

Drama, Comedy

Blast Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

About The Author

Randy Steinberg is a Blast Film Critic. He has a Master's Degree in Film/Screenwriting from Boston University. He taught screenwriting at BU from 1999-2010 and continues to write screenplays and other fiction. In 2020, he joined the Boston Online Critics Film Association (BOFCA). Randy can be contacted at steinbrc@msn.com

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