Freshman feature helmer Niall Heery makes a strong, self-assured first impression with “Small Engine Repair,” an affecting and understated dramedy about a fortysomething underachiever in a small Irish town who wants to establish himself as a country music singer-songwriter. Pic covers familiar territory, to be sure, but consistently sustains interest with vividly drawn characters, a strong sense of place and ambiance, and engaging performances by well-cast leads. Offshore prospects probably will skew toward cable and homevid, though limited U.S theatrical runs could generate respectable profit.
Doug (Iain Glen) is a sad-eyed jack-of-all-trades whose life has become the sort of unhappy slog that often inspires C&W songs. He loses his job as a forklift operator to an ex-convict — the aptly named Burley (Stuart Graham). And when he catches his wife in flagrante delicto with another guy, he’s the one who gets kicked out of the house, and is forced to accept the hospitality of his buddy Bill (Steven Mackintosh), owner of a none-too-successful small-engine repair shop.
Bill, a dreamer and schemer whose best-laid plans chronically come to naught, has troubles of his own: He’s justly worried that his restless son Tony (Laurence Kinlan) will abandon the family business. But even as he frets about fraying family ties, Bill remains deeply concerned about Doug, and encourages him to get serious about his music.
“Small Engine Repair” will come as an amusing surprise to anyone who doesn’t know how American-style C&W music flourishes in certain parts of Ireland. For Doug, who appears to personify the cliche of Irish defeatism, the more mournful country ditties are particularly appealing.
Directing from his own richly layered script, Heery paces his character-driven pic like a melancholy ballad, taking time to linger on revealing details and intriguing quirks. (Lenser Tim Fleming adroitly enhances the pic’s shifting moods.) Still, the helmer is not averse to conventional narrative stratagems: Early on, he introduces an undercurrent of suspense by revealing the circumstances of Burley’s arrest years ago. To his credit, Heery provides a satisfying payoff to this subplot without resorting to tone-disruptive melodrama.
Glen is credible and compelling as Doug, a man so accustomed to expecting the worst he savors the smallest victories as major triumphs. (A nice touch: He’s no better a singer than the aud would expect Doug to be.) But the equally splendid Mackintosh lays claim to the pic’s most emotionally potent sequence. Near the very end, Bill is left alone to contemplate how much he has lost, and how much of that loss is his own fault. Here, too, Heery avoids the obvious, presenting the epiphany with no-frills, dialogue-free simplicity, lingering long enough for the aud to fully appreciate, and perhaps even share, the character’s pain.
It’s the kind of pain people write C&W songs about.