My freshman year of college, a friend and I dressed as Nancy Kerrigan (me) and Tonya Harding (Kathleen) for Halloween. We rollerbladed around campus and parodied a “major”, often-satirized news story from our youth. After watching I, Tonya, I feel like I owe Tonya Harding a bit of an apology. More on that later.
I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) rise in figure skating and the calamitous end of her career, focusing on her side of the infamous 1994 assault on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). The film opens with Harding’s distant, abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), starting 4-year-old Tonya with a skating coach, and follows Tonya as she struggles to get a leg up in the posh world of figure skating despite her poverty. Eventually, Tonya meets and marries Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) who is more emotionally supportive than LaVona was, but beats Tonya even more than her mother did. After a lackluster showing at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya is given another chance to compete, thanks to her coach, Diane Rowlison (Julianne Nicholson), and, well, you know the rest of the story. At least you think you do.
Based on contradictory, “unironic” interviews with Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, LaVona, and Tonya’s “bodyguard”, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser)–who, let’s be honest, appears the most guilty–the tone of I, Tonya reflects Tonya’s own retelling of the story. The film is irreverent and flippant. The Playlist called the movie “The Goodfellas of figure skating” and the comparison is accurate. I, Tonya is very darkly funny, sometimes around subject matter, such as domestic violence, that makes many people cringe. In pairing the humor with the darkness, the film mirrors Tonya’s voice and pulls the audience into her corner. The film cuts between dramatizations of the interviews and the events of the story, highlighting the discrepancies between different accounts of the experiences. Characters also break the fourth wall, interrupting action to talk directly to the audience. The quick cuts and direct addresses reflect the idea, floated by Tonya, that there is no real truth.
Margot Robbie and the inimitable Allison Janney both give excellent performances. They take the raw material of the interviews and, rather than parodying or caritaturing the big personalities of Tonya and LaVona, they bring out the women’s big personalities with sincerity. Janney is hilarious, harsh and dominating as LaVona. Robbie does a wonderful job of balancing Tonya’s vulnerability with her aggressive streak.
I, Tonya is at-heart a celebration of the underdog, Tonya Harding, without really letting her off the hook. In portraying the abuse Harding endured, the film gets at the psychology that might lead to the attitude that both made her appealing and an outsider in figure skating. At the same time, her frequent assertion that setbacks are not her fault (even when they might be) makes sense, given her background, and also, hurts her credibility. I, Tonya makes Tonya Harding deeply sympathetic without exonerating her either. More than convince the audience that Harding was innocent in the attack on Kerrigan, it indicts the culture that ridiculed Harding and made her an outsider when she had the talent to really be a champion. At a key point in the movie, Harding explains that the way she was treated after the attack on Kerrigan was like being abused all over again, but this time “you were my abusers.” Harding is most clearly addressing the media, but as someone who has participated in Tonya Harding jokes, I felt a bit convicted too. That’s where the film is most convincing. Behind the media circus was a hurt person trying to live her dream.
I, Tonya has a great soundtrack, outstanding performances, an engaging visual style, and a sharp script. My only real complaint is that sometimes you can tell a body double is skating for Margot Robbie. I rate it 5/5 stars.
I, Tonya was written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie. It runs 2 hours and is rated R for language, violence, and some sexuality.
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