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 Lynn Venhaus
This trashy excuse for a crime-thriller wants us to believe it is set in St. Louis, but there is a total absence of any markers that could identify our fair city. One character does arrange a meeting in Forest Park, but they mention a “K-Town”?

OK, the cars did have Missouri license plates, so kudos for that. Otherwise, it’s a generic framing of a seedy “inner-city” area that has seen better days. There isn’t even a ubiquitous shot of the Gateway Arch just to pretend where we are. Instead, we get depictions of mean streets and government housing.

The tourism bureau won’t be getting a boost from visitors because this unrelenting grim and cliché-driven film is unappealing and not worth 91 minutes of your time. It was filmed in Norfolk, Va., and the dim and harsh lighting does the atmosphere no favors – even if it is going for true grit to emphasize our city’s chaotic crime numbers.

Social worker Parker Jode (Shea Wigham), assigned to the care of Ashley (Taegan Burns), the daughter of single mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn), intervenes when the dad, Mike (Zach Avery) returns from prison. Because dad is involved in drug dealing and a robbery, he is putting his family in danger.

As for the St. Louis location, Italian-born director Michele Civetta is quoted as saying: “Setting the film in a locale like St. Louis was a metaphor for the crossroads of America today. A gilded age town that has fallen on harder times, outgrown its original destiny as the Gateway city to the west, now a playground for drug trafficking and interstate contraband resulting in gang violence. The city conjures the ethos of a lawless environment presided over by a dysfunctional corrupt government administration that has really forgotten the everyday person.”

OK, then. Let the outrage ensue.

Three men are credited with this macho tough-guy screenplay: Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas, and the director, Michele Civetta.

The director aspires to be a throwback to those hard-boiled B-movies from the 1970s, like John Cassavetes’ “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and John Huston’s “Fat City” – the lead character is even a failed boxer! — but he does not achieve any sort of emotional truth with such stereotypical characters.

Civetta’s experience includes many commercials and music videos and was nominated for an Emmy for his NBC commercial “Halloween Today” in 2016. His last film was “Agony” released in 2020, and this film wrapped up right before the pandemic lockdown happened.

Civetta is trying to make a statement about how children are affected by the bad behavior of their parents, and that their actions have consequences, which of course is noble because there are so many young victims, and the human toll is enormous. While it’s obvious here, a better vehicle might have elevated the cause.

The protagonist is a social worker whose job is checking on the welfare of kids in less-than-ideal home lives. Shea Wigham, a character actor who is familiar to audiences after being in a long list of movies and TV shows for the past 20 years, rises to the occasion as a world-weary flawed guy who is driven by his checkered past, including growing up in foster homes. You’ve seen him as a detective in “Joker” and this summer in “F9.”

Parker is an anti-hero who champions his own sense of justice while spending lonely nights drinking too much at a dive bar. This guy has a lot of issues but the script only scratches at the surface.

He cares too much about keeping the kids safe that he meets on the job, and is drawn into a dangerous web when he’s checking on Ashley, the daughter of night casino worker Dahlia. Her husband, Mike, is in prison, and comes back in their lives when he’s paroled. He is as mean as a junkyard dog, signaling trouble ahead.

He rejoins his group of drug-dealing thugs, led by Frank Grillo as “Duke,” in yet another swaggering tough-guy role and wearing a ludicrous pimp hat. Antagonizing a Mexican drug cartel,  they botch a robbery – and the heat is on, from both the cops and the nefarious cartel goons.

As villain Mike, Zach Avery has nowhere to go, for his character is one-note and has zero redeeming qualities.

Olivia Munn doesn’t embarrass herself in the concerned mom role trapped in an abusive relationship, and a bright spot is young actress Taegan Burns as daughter Ashley.

Dear old dad puts a stash in his daughter’s backpack – in effect making her a drug mule, which starts a chain of mayhem. Parker takes the women to his estranged father’s house to hide.

Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern plays the elder Jode, Marcus, a Vietnam veteran and former jazz musician, as a grizzled survivor. He knows he messed up but isn’t all that apologetic about putting his son in the foster care system as a youth. It’s a showy part, with the requisite whisky-fueled late-night talk between father and son before the criminals come calling.

As the plot becomes more contrived, full of bad ideas, one hopes for some character redemption, but there is no deliverance from evil. These are all hardened people – and perhaps we could have understood motivations, but it wasn’t going to happen with this being so heavy-handed. The final scene, meant to be somber yet hopeful, is almost laughable.

A Charles Dickens quote condemning bad parenting begins the film and statistics about foster children ends it.

Dark and depressing, this movie has little to recommend it. Not even a shot of the Arch gleaming in sunlight could have saved it.

Shea Wigham and Taryn Manning

“The Gateway” is a 2021 crime thriller directed by Michele Civetta and starring Shea Wigham, Olivia Munn, Zach Avery, Bruce Dern, Frank Grillo, Taryn Manning, Mark Boone Junior and Taegan Burns. Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use, some sexual content and nudity and its run time is 1 hour and 31 minutes. In theaters, digital and Video on Demand on Sept. 3; on DVD/Blu-Ray Sept. 7. Lynn’s Grade: D