It doesn’t happen often, but it’s refreshing when a place embraces its identity, good or bad.
Such is the case with Manchester, New Hampshire, known derisively as Manch Vegas, the anti-glitz bleak setting of “Small Engine Repair” (Vertical).
A brief opening sequence in which Frankie (multihyphenate John Pollono, covering acting, directing, and adapting his stage play for the screen duties) is released from a correctional facility and reunited with his young daughter Crystal (Nina Peterson), sets the mood for the story. While single father Frankie was in confinement, Crystal was looked after by his two childhood friends Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham), because Crystal’s itinerant mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) is on the West Coast.
A few years later, Crystal (Ciara Bravo) is a bright high school student with a promising future. A reformed Frankie, no longer drinking or smoking, runs his small engine repair shop, while attempting to negotiate Crystal’s college plans, which appear to be geared towards UCLA. They have a loving and teasing father/daughter relationship. This is one of the first places where the movie feels stagey, the dialogue more theatrical than cinematic.
As with many teens, Crystal lives on her smartphone and we see her taking lots of selfies. But she’s also devoted to Frankie, as well as to Swaino and Packie, who come over for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s at this gathering that it is revealed that Crystal got early acceptance to UCLA.
Karen, back in town for the holiday, takes Crystal shopping for some mother/daughter bonding time. Meanwhile Frankie, Swaino and Packie head to a bar. It doesn’t take long for things to head south and a violent bar fight erupts, which is eventually broken up when Crystal arrives. Frankie blames Swaino and Packie, telling them he doesn’t ever want anything to do with them again.
Three months later, Frankie texts Swaino and Packie, inviting them both to the shop under false pretenses. The trio makes amends and soon they’re back to trading barbs and busting each other’s balls. The reunion is interrupted a few times by calls and texts that Frankie receives. He reveals that he invited Chad (Spencer House), a Northeastern University student and molly dealer over to join them. Chad arrives in his Mercedes G, a gift from his powerful lawyer father, towering over the guys both physically (he’s 6’3) and financially.
You’re probably wondering what he’s really doing there. Oh, and where’s Crystal? Here’s the twist: the selfies that Crystal was taking (including some provocative ones) were being sent to Chad, who found her on Instagram. Making matters worse is that their unfortunate interaction, which involved social media, an in-person meet-up with Chad and his frat boy buddies at Northeastern, and ridicule from Crystal’s high school classmates, resulting in Crystal’s attempted suicide and current comatose state in a hospital. Frank’s plan is to kill Chad and dismember his body, and for that he needs to enlist Swaino and Packie.
No spoilers here! However, viewers should be aware that much of what follows is extremely hard to watch. Like his character Frankie, Pollono (who co-wrote the screenplay for the 2017 movie Jake Gyllenhaal movie “Stronger” about the Boston Marathon bombing), is all about control. But ultimately that works against him. Pollono handles the New England characters and setting with ease, but you never once forget that “Small Engine Repair” was a play before it was a movie. Pollono also finds ways to work in issues of homophobia (something that comes up more than once), some of which are handled better than others. The always reliable Bernthal steals the show, although Whigham definitely holds his own.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.