I spent most of elementary school as a competitive figure skater. In 1994, I was an 8 year old with pictures of Nancy Kerrigan on my wall. That whole Tonya Harding thing… that was a mess. As such, I walked into I, Tonya not really sure what to expect. While great word of mouth has been spreading quickly, how can you really tell that complicated story?
I, Tonya follows the life of popular and infamous figure skater Tonya Harding from her first steps into the rink through the 1994 drama with Nancy Kerrigan, before finally exploring her exploits in celebrity boxing. The film stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janey. Craig Gillespie, best known to audiences for Fright Night and Lars and the Real Girl directs the film.
The Steven Rogers script combines with Craig Gillispie’s direction to create a ridiculously smart, but still entertaining movie. The story makes a number of points about fame, economic parity and even the 24-hour news cycle. However, it maintains its complicated message while still being a fun film to watch. Each of the characters produce laugh-out-loud moments of comedy throughout the movie, while not sacrificing the strength of the story. I, Tonya manages to not only embrace its over-the-top nature, but also embrace its grounding in reality.
I, Tonya utilizes an interesting interview based aesthetic to tell the story. The style is a bold choice. The actors routinely break the fourth wall, which has crashed and burned plenty of times before. However, Gillespie uses the style to not only fuel the humor (keep an eye out for LaVona Harding’s (Janey) bird repeatedly pecking at her ear), but also to make a point. Midway through the film, Robbie’s Harding stares straight into the camera and makes a pointed statement about the 24 hour news cycle. In doing this, she’s talking straight to the audience. It’s direct and to the point. The tabloid fodder isn’t simply the work of the journalists and the news media… these stories wouldn’t survive without ratings. The audience is also complicit.
I, Tonya constructs Harding as an underdog. She’s not the villain. In actuality, this depiction of Tonya Harding is a great many things. Robbie’s portrayal shows Harding as a complicated woman. She’s a product of her upbringing, but at the same time struggles to break free from it. Tonya is the child and wife of abuse, but must put on a perfect face when she steps on the ice.
Harding is an outsider and an underdog. She struggles heavily with other’s perceptions of her, and all at once, she’s relatable. In a heartbreaking moment, she’s told by a judge that the figure skating community can’t have her representing the country. Despite her skating dominance, she’s brash, aggressive and comes from a “white trash” family. She looks up, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?”. This is a poignant moment. Technically, Harding still stands as one of the best. Why shouldn’t this speak for itself?
The film also crafts a very interesting take to what it calls “The Incident”. At that point, the narrative shifts to spotlight Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan). Harding’s involvement in the Kerrigan attack is left ambiguous at best. Did she plan it (as many suspected)? Or could the woman who the 24 hour news cycle vilified in the months before OJ Simpson simply have been a victim of circumstance? However, as the movie ends, one thing becomes clear. Harding is a fighter.
Margot Robbie absolutely slays in I, Tonya, particularly in the third act. Her performance picks up speed and evolves throughout the film. She absolutely shines once Harding’s life goes fully off the rails. Harding’s trial after the Lilliehammer games shows Robbie at her absolute best. In even the short run of the scene, she absolutely cements what the film wants us to see. Tonya Harding is not a villain. Rather, she lost the most in the depicted events. She even pleads the judge to give her jail time (like the others involved) for “The Incident”. At least then she would be able to keep skating. The performance is a powerhouse from the actress, and it seems to cement her as a contender in this year’s awards season buzz.
However, the cast as a whole gives stunningly solid performances. Perennial favorite Allison Janey definitely establishes herself as a contender for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. The actress looses herself in her portrayal of LaVona, Harding’s colorful mother. Actor Sebastian Stan is also not getting enough attention for his portrayal of Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s on again/off again husband. The young actor cemented his reputation in the Marvel franchise, and shines when faced with the task of this very challenging character. He easily injects complicated layers into the unsympathetic figure, and the man’s struggles seem suddenly apparent.
Finally, sports films are tough. No matter how much an actor trains, they won’t match the skill and talent of a seasoned athlete. In fact, Battle of the Sexes took some criticism for its filming of the tennis sequences just this autumn. However, I, Tonya manages to blur the lines between acting and sport. The ice skating sequences are well done. The transitions between Robie’s performance to the (likely) skating double are smooth and well constructed. The aesthetic in the large arenas is a little rough, and occasionally looks very computer generated. However, the film works around this nicely. Rather than assume the audiences perspective as sports films are proned to do, Harding becomes the focus. The camera shots her close from the ice level, showing every moment of glee and frustration as she skates. She suddenly that much more real.
I, Tonya isn’t a formulaic, inspirational sports movie. In his film, Craig Gillespie presents a smart and interesting take on the now infamous figure skating story. It is a fascinating breakdown of the twenty-four hour news cycle we’ve all come to hate. Finally, it breakdown and poses a question… is Tonya Harding really the villain 1990s society turned her into? Or could the figure skater have simply been a victim of her upbringing?
I, Tonya is in select theaters around the country.
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