By Lynn Venhaus

Tough blue-collar guys hardened by harsh winters, bleak childhoods, dead-end adult lives, and rigid views on masculinity are the central figures in “Small Engine Repair,” an intense and powerful drama with crackling flashes of comedy that is set in Manchester, N.H.

The three rough-hewn childhood friends Frankie Romanoski (John Pollono), Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) needle each other with insults but have a deep love for each other. That bond of brotherhood is tested numerous times – as they drink too much, get into fights because of their hair-trigger tempers and cope with unfulfilled lives. Frank is clearly the leader, and is a recovering alcoholic.

They have one thing they can agree on, besides the Boston Red Sox — their tender concern for Frank’s daughter, Crystal, now 17. Fiercely protective, their loyalty comes into question during an out-of-control evening based on Pollono’s 2011 award-winning play.

At first glance, one may find John Pollono’s characters drawn in broad strokes, but reserve judgment because layers will be revealed, subtly and perceptively, as the bigger picture on societal roles, class struggle and modern technology emerges.

Ten years after his explosive 70-minute one-act play hit Los Angeles audiences hard with a sledgehammer, Pollono has adapted his edgy pitch-black piece for film, expanding the landscape and adding two female performers instead of just alluding to them in dialogue. The movie, with flashbacks, runs 1 hour and 43 minutes.

Ciara Bravo, a young actress known for TV shows who starred opposite Tom Holland in “Cherry,” excels as the feisty teenage daughter Crystal. She’s a senior in high school who yearns for bigger things, like going to college and becoming somebody. Raised basically by her single dad, mechanic Frank, she considers Swaino and Packie her family.

Jordana Spiro is in the brief but pivotal role as her mostly absent mom Karen Delgado. She became pregnant as a high school junior, and eventually left the area. Her troubled relationship with Frank is complicated and she pushes his buttons. Spiro nails this woman whose life didn’t turn out as she planned.

Ultimately, this brilliantly constructed work will show how substantive it is, but as this unsettling tale unfolds, it’s not that black-and-white. Pollono, who also directed and reprises his role as Frankie, grew up in New Hampshire, and knows this grimy world. He understands about shared histories and love-hate relationships with your coarse working-class guy pals.

Actor Jon Bernthal originated the role of ladies’ man Swaino on the L.A. stage and serves as a producer. He was unable to appear in the 2013 off-Broadway production because of his burgeoning acting career in film and television. He fits Swaino to a T, inhabiting this crude, vain and unrefined guy who is too quick to react and stuck in a warehouse job. But he is sincere in his love for Crystal.

He and Pollono carry their chemistry, first exhibited in the Los Angeles production that won every award possible, over to the screen. They easily convey a longtime friendship, along with the biggest surprise – character actor Shea Wigham’s Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan.

Wigham is a revelation as stuck-in-a-rut Packie, a smart man whose technical prowess and knowledge of social networking will come into play. But he’s a serious case of arrested development, living in his grandmother’s basement, inept with women, and invasive with personal questions.

The trio don’t seem to be aware of what boundaries are, let alone have filters when they are together. Their jabs at each other cut too deep sometimes and their locker room talk gets repetitive. Yet the actors keep up a frantic pace of macho sex talk and putting each other down at every opportunity.

After a tiff, the men reunite at Frank’s urging to hang out one evening at his small engine repair garage. Only he has an ulterior motive bringing them back together for top-shelf Scotch whiskey and steaks.

Frank has asked arrogant frat boy Chad Walker (Spencer House), his drug dealer, to stop by with “Molly,” which is another name for the synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen Ecstasy (MDMA).

As they knock back shots with the technically savvy Millennial, who reeks of privilege, are they really all that different? Chad has a callous disregard for women as sex objects and is casually dismissive of others ‘not in his league.’ House displays the entitlement of a kid whose big-deal attorney father has handed him everything in life accept the lesson that actions have consequences.

One can’t divulge too much of the plot, but it’s driven by family ties and the intangible bonds of lifelong friendships. If comparing to other works, think David Mamet – and even the characters satirized by Saturday Night Live in the ‘wicked-funny’ Boston sketches. For those who watched “Mare of Easttown,” it has an uncanny resemblance to that clannish Pennsylvania enclave depicted in the HBO mini-series.

Pollono wrote the screenplay to the 2017 movie “Stronger,” which tells of Jeff Bauman’s struggle to walk after the Boston Marathon bombing, another lived-in cadre of characters steeped in their New England environment.

He demonstrates a flair for crafting real-world characters and is a strong Frankie, who tries to take care of everybody but can’t manage his anger issues.

This is a fierce suspenseful production that is unapologetic in its politically incorrectness. It features bursts of ugly violence, a torrent of expletives, and with its vulgarities, earned every bit of its R rating. It is not an easy watch.

Jon Bernthal and Shea Wigham in “Small Engine Repair”

However, Pollono’s sharp observations on the narrow lanes still in place today in society – 10 years after its stage debut – gives one pause. Dynamic ensemble work makes this a drama whose impact will linger.

“Small Engine Repair” is a 2021 comedy-drama that is directed by John Pollono, who also stars, along with Jon Bernthal, Shea Wigham, Ciara Bravo, Spencer House and Jordan Spiro. It is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B+.

By Alex McPherson

Director Leigh Janiak’s “Fear Street Part 2: 1978,” based on R.L. Stine’s novels, lacks the spark of the first installment, but still delivers a moderately engaging slasher throwback with bucketloads of gore.

After the ridiculous events of “Fear Street Part 1: 1994,” Deena (Kiana Madeira) and Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) meet up with C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs), a survivor of the 1978 Camp Nightwing massacre, hoping to learn how to end Sarah Fier’s witchy curse.

As the traumatized woman recounts her experiences, viewers are transported back to Camp Nightwing to witness what transpired. The protagonist is Cindy Berman (Emily Rudd), an uptight, goodie two-shoes camp counselor who becomes aggravated when other supervisors prioritize drugs and sex over doing their jobs. Her sister, the trouble-making Ziggy (Sadie Sink), holds a nihilistic view towards life — remaining an outcast among fellow campers, but a friend of counselor and future Shadyside sheriff Nick Goode (Ted Sutherland), as well as being a victim to nonstop bullying from mean girl Sheila (Chiara Aurelia), who insists that Ziggy’s an actual witch. 

Just in time for the camp’s annual “Color War,” a capture-the-flag-esque event in which the vicious rivalry between Shadysiders and their stuck-up Sunnyvale neighbors rears its head in full force, things start to get creepy. After Nurse Lane (Jordana Spiro) violently confronts Cindy’s innocent boyfriend, Tommy Slater (McCabe Slye), suspicions arise as to whether Fier’s curse has returned. Cindy, accompanied by a few others including her ex-best friend, an irritating mumbler named Alice (Ryan Simpkins), attempt to find out what’s going on themselves. You guessed it, dear readers, all hell breaks loose, and the body count grows scene by scene. Can Cindy, Ziggy, and company make it out alive, or are they doomed to perish in a seemingly never-ending murder spree by an axe-wielding attacker?

Lacking the craftsmanship of “1994” regarding character depth and creativity, “1978” ends up being a fairly straightforward genre film that’s above average, but represents a downgrade from the trilogy’s opener. The second entry loses much of the adventurous fun of “1994,” coming across as rather dour, bleak, and unforgiving in comparison — full of cliches, yet promising better things to come in “Part 3.”

It’s clear that Janiak is attempting to tackle a different tone than “1994,” more akin to “Friday the 13th” than “Stranger Things.” In keeping with the change, “1978” begins rather generically once Berman begins her story, setting up the atmosphere of Camp Nightwing in a way that mostly doesn’t break from formula.

“1978” is a definite slow-burn compared to its predecessor, taking time to get underway, but effectively conveying a sun-drenched retreat with a dark heart and sickening future. Combined with a soundtrack of 70s era songs, Janiak once again captures the time period with a fitting attention to detail. In terms of camerawork, though, “1978” doesn’t feel as precise, featuring impressive tracking shots and spooky set design — enhanced by a sinister original score — but containing some dimly lit sequences and shaky cam that break immersion.

The batch of characters are decidedly inconsistent, but a few are explored meaningfully. Among them are Cindy and Ziggy, whose tensions are grounded in reality and easy to sympathize with. Living with a single parent and barely able to keep their house, the rift between them — with Cindy trying to support their family and Ziggy being increasingly pessimistic — is huge, but just like in “1994,” Janiak shows how frayed bonds can strengthen under shared threats. Rudd and Sink both give poignant performances and have solid chemistry with one another. Their dialogue is largely convincing, but interactions overall are missing the playful dynamic present in “1994.” 

The “Shadyside Curse” rests at the heart of characters’ conflicts in “1978,” creating a sense of existential dread in their fates seeming out of their control — accentuated by Alice’s character, a young woman who uses drugs to compensate for her mental struggles. Nick Goode’s character is also cleared up a bit from “1994,” as he gradually falls for Ziggy and considers what the supernatural events entail for his career in Shadyside.

The remainder of the characters adopt boringly plain archetypes — the attention-seeking leader, promiscuous hippie, etc. — and viewers don’t spend much time with them before they’re graphically murdered (younger campers are often slain off-screen). They certainly have a lot of blood to spill, on the other hand. Indeed, “1978” almost goes overboard here, rendering many saps expendable fodder for the big baddie.

Speaking of, Janiak’s film feels limited by only having a single main threat for the characters to face, relegated to using a single weapon. “1994” was far more unpredictable in its kills, and while “1978” never ceases to shock, the violence starts to feel repetitive by the end credits. At least the sequences surrounding the destruction are more suspenseful this time around, feeling more frantic and distressing than before, as the leads scramble to save their friends and loved ones while trying to figure out what’s really going on. 

With nearly as many flaws as strengths, “1978” fails to reach the heights of the original, but still offers its own gruesome, albeit unimaginative, pleasures. If nothing else, the film successfully builds hype for “Part 3,” which takes place in 1666 and details the background of Fier’s execution. There’s plenty more questions to answer and scares to be had, and I’m ready for the trilogy to surprise me once again.

“Fear Street Part 2: 1978” is part of a movie trilogy on Netflix, the first set in 1994 and the next one in 1666. Directed by Leigh Janiak, it stars Emily Rudd, Sadie Sink and Gillian Jacobs. Rated R for bloody horror violence, sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language throughout, its run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. The movie began streaming on Netflix July 9. Alex’s Grade: B-