Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono star in “Small Engine Repair.” (Image: Vertical Entertainment)

The testosterone-fueled “Small Engine Repair” never feels like you are watching a play even though it started on the stage — written by and starring John Pollono in the lead role — winning several Ovation Awards presented by the LA Stage Alliance. The story is focused on three lifelong friends who gather one night at a mechanic garage to repair a broken friendship with the help of whiskey, beer, and steaks. A secret is unveiled that tests their friendship and moral boundaries in the powerful third act. John Bernthal reprises his stage role alongside Pollono, while the wonderful Shea Whigham joins the cast delivering a first-rate performance in the sleeper hit of the year.

Frank Romanoski (Pollono) has just been released from the Hillsborough Correctional Facility in Manchester, New Hampshire. While serving time his two best friends Swaino (Bernthal) and Packie (Whigham) watched over his toddler-aged daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo) who doesn’t remember her father, evident by the tears shed and her reluctance to let Frank hold her. If you’re wondering about the child’s mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro), she’s an alcoholic who bailed on her daughter leaving Frank to raise the kid alone.

Before you can say “Three Men and a Baby” the film moves forward seventeen years. Crystal is now a senior in high school, Frank, Swaino, and Packie are still friends, although it doesn’t look as though they’ve aged and maybe that’s because they haven’t matured over the last two decades. Alpha Male Frank still battles anger issues — evident by the patched-up hole in the wall outside Crystal’s bedroom — while Swaino is living out his Wooderson fantasy, “I get older, they stay the same age” filling his life with endless one-night stands, and then there’s Packie, the sensitive homebody who still rides a bicycle. He’s a beta for sure but also the smartest of the bunch.

Manchester is known by the locals as Manch-Vegas because it’s the exact opposite of Sin City. No glitz or glamor, rough around the edges with an overabundance of cocky guys whose dialect shares characteristics of their neighbors in Maine and Massachusetts. However, underneath that hard shell, as we see in the film, these are good down-to-earth people that you can relate to, no matter where you live. It’s the driving force behind “Small Engine Repair” beautifully written by Pollono who peppers the heavy drama with moments of comedy and heartbreak.

No matter how asinine these characters behave, you never hate them, even when Karen shows up late in her daughter’s life, wasted as always, but looking to reconnect on the cusp of Crystal’s next chapter in life, college. Swaino and Packie don’t believe Karen deserves the right to be in her daughter’s life, Frank understands she’s the girl’s mother and so he goes along with the reunion especially because Crystal longs for that mother-daughter bond.

The story takes a bizarre twist with the introduction of frat boy Chad (Spencer House), the rich spoiled drug dealer and ace basketball player who shows up with a special delivery for Frank. There are quite a few funny moments as Packie shows off his social media prowess which includes an Instagram tutorial. The levity soon breaks for tension as dark clouds loom over the horizon and the plot heads into dark territory changing the film’s tone while moving the viewer closer to the edge of their seat.

Filled with three-dimensional characters, plenty of tension, and a powerful final act that serves two purposes, one, it questions moral boundaries while forcing you to put yourself in these character’s shoes, and two, it uses a flashback (Whigham taking the spotlight) to give us a broader perspective of these men by giving us a glimpse of the world they were raised in. It’s not very pretty. Highly recommended, “Small Engine Repair” is the sleeper hit of the year.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing at AMC The Parks at Arlington 18, AMC Valley View 16, AMC Dine-In Stonebriar 24, AMC Dine-in Mesquite 30, and AMC Firewheel 18

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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