With The Engine Inside, directors Colin Jones, Darren McCullough, and Darcy Wittenburg thoroughly examine an item most people take for granted: the bicycle. Written by Wittenburg, Daisy Maddinson, and Mitchell Scott, the documentary trots around the globe to interview people from different cultures and backgrounds. In each locale, what the bicycle represents morphs, changing audience expectations, perceptions, and preconceived notions. That is quite a lot for something about the seemingly mundane bike.
While the premise sounds simple, maybe even cornball, there is a certain power to what is witnessed throughout the well-paced 81-minute runtime. Jay Bearhead Roque had a hard life growing up, which led to substance abuse issues, among other problems. When he funneled his rage into biking the beautiful terrain surrounding his reservation, Roque got clean. Megan Hottman’s an attorney specializing in cycling accidents/cyclist injuries. She hopes to expand bikers’ rights as well as create bicycle-specific roads (i.e., travel roads off the automotive ones just for bikes, not bike lanes). Nouran Salah is an Egyptian Muslim artist/activist who bikes all over town. This is considered taboo as the culture she grew up in (still) believes that a female riding a bike will lose her virginity.
The Engine Inside also looks at the lighter side of cycling. Cycling coach Janice Tower finds peace when out for a ride, even during grueling trials such as the Iditarod. Darnell Myers and his “Cycle Squad” take to the pavement to do tricks, though finding empty streets to bike down proves to be a challenge. Kwabena Danso is determined to help the youth of Ghana (shoutout to Acra!) gain the upper hand in life. So he gives the children bicycles, granting them further travel and freedom than their ancestors.
“…thoroughly examine[s] an item most people take for granted: the bicycle.”
Throughout all this, the filmmakers mix up the interviews with stunning footage of the subjects’ biking. The eleven directors of photography seamlessly blend their styles together to give the film a kinetic sense of motion. The soundtrack is also quite excellent, adding to the momentum of what’s happening on the screen.
The Engine Inside also works on an emotional one. When Salah explains why biking is taboo in her culture, it is shocking, confusing, and even a little heartbreaking. When the narrator goes on about the titular “engine inside,” a sense of swelling pride overtakes all watching. Observing Hottman at work seeking justice for cyclists is both frustrating and enlightening.
As a documentary, The Engine Inside hits all the right marks. It looks and sounds great, moves well, and is informative. As a call to action to fight climate change and unjust social stigmas, and to gain perspective on one’s self, the plot proves surprisingly profound. Who knew a bicycle could hold the meaning of life in its spokes?
"…hits all the right marks. It looks and sounds great..."