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(Left to right): John Pollono, Jordana Spiro, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Josh Helman

“SMALL ENGINE REPAIR” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

103 minutes || MPAA rating: R

John Pollono’s “Small Engine Repair” isn’t so much a movie as it is several movies, often working at cross purposes.

The upshot is a bad case of emotional/tonal whiplash as what initially looks like a study of blue-collar male bonding — with a healthy dash of toxic masculinity — veers into over-the-top melodrama.

Initially this indie effort presents itself as a workin-class riff on “Three Men and a Baby.”  In the first scene Frankie (writer/director Pollono) comes out of prison to be greeted by his boyhood chums Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick (Shea Whigham), who have been taking care of Frankie’s infant daughter while he was in stir.

How these two beer-swigging man-boys were allowed to care for a baby is something of a mystery, but we’re led to believe that they did a pretty good job in Frankie’s absence.

Cut to many years later.  That baby has grown up to be the teenage Crystal ( Ciara Bravo), who still lives with her dad Frankie, although she also spends much time with her loving “uncles.” 

Though Frankie has long been on the wagon, he’s still got a temper, especially when Crystal’s druggie mom Karen (Jordana Spiro) makes a rare appearance to stir up old animosities.  With his patience frayed by domestic issues, Frankie needs little provocation to get into barroom brawls; he’s invariably joined in the mayhem by Swaino and Patrick, who in middle age remain single and, emotionally anyway, adolescent.

These early passages seem to be going for a slice-of-life naturalism. Despite the violent blips, we find ourselves taking comfort in the three men’s lifelong friendship.

It doesn’t last.

In the second half of the film is like another movie altogether. Frankie entertains a smugly privileged college kid, Anthony  (Josh Helman), who sidelines as a drug dealer.  Over the course of a drunken evening in Frankie’s small engine repair shop Anthony finds himself duct taped to a chair; apparently he dated Frankie’s beloved Crystal and ruined the girl’s life by posting intimate photos of her online.

Frankie now expects old pals Swaino and Patrick and to help out with his revenge, though they’re not so sure they’re ready to commit homicide.  Things are further complicated when Crystal’s mom Karen shows up and begins goading the menfolk into action.

“Small Engine Repair” is a very weird, scattered film. It originated as a four-man, one-set  play written by  Pollono. On stage the characters of Crystal and her mom Karen are discussed, but never seen.  

Watching the film I found myself reverse engineering it.  The whole first half of the movie apparently was created in an effort open the yarn up cinematically.  The play proper eats up the claustrophobic Act II.

But the old material and the new really don’t mesh.  Which is where this expanded narrative’s dramatic schizophrenia rears its ugly head. 

The good news is that individual scenes in “Small Engine Repair” work really well.  And the performances are terrific. I was particularly taken with Whigham’s Patrick, a social moron whose tech expertise — he’s something of a computer geek — becomes essential to the plot.

| Robert W. Butler

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