Film Review: I, Tonya Proves a Fascinating, Sympathetic Portrait Driven by Year’s Best Performances

This exquisite biopic from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) asks you to consider—or perhaps “reconsider” is the better word—everything you think you know about former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Harding’s kills on the ice were overshadowed by tabloid headlines about her involvement in the attack on her Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan, long considered the darling of the U.S. skating world, despite the fact that by all measures Harding was, technique-wise, the better skater. Steven Rogers’ intricate, multi-pronged screenplay takes a look at Harding’s life leading up to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer (her second) and portrays several versions of key events from the points of view of those closest to her personal and professional lives.

Image Courtesy of Neon

I, Tonya is an endlessly fascinating look at Harding (played by Margot Robbie, doing easily her finest work to date), who though she might not have been the most hated person in America for a time, was certainly the most looked down upon. In large part, this was because of her working-class upbringing and lack of funds to wear the best costumes and have her hair and makeup done professionally for competitions. Harding was the “someone like you” to whom no judge was going to give a perfect score, despite being the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axel jumps in a single competition. In the end, assuming you have any opinion about Harding, it will likely be altered or at least called into question after seeing this surprisingly sympathetic work.

The film takes on the appearance of a documentary with “new” interviews given by all of the key figures in Harding’s world (meaning the actors in character), beginning with her aggressive, awful mother LaVona Golden (a divinely monstrous Allison Janney), who both pushed her daughter to be the best and denied her anything resembling positive reinforcement. Golden’s style was encouragement via bullying, spewing four-letter words like she was getting paid by the letter. As sad as it seems, and though some part of it worked, it also destined Tonya to make a series of bad decisions as she got older, including getting involved with future husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan from the Captain America films). She began to view physical and mental abuse as a form of love, and it doomed her in almost Shakespearean proportions.

One of the film’s most fascinating tactics is to use Rashomon-style filmmaking to show us different versions of the same events, very often giving us completely contradictory facts—meaning one of our characters is a blatant liar. And quite often, one of the two people spinning yarns is Gillooly, a classic weasel with a terrible porn mustache and something that an impressionable young woman, desperate to escape her mother’s grasp, might consider charm. But occasionally, Harding gives us a version of their marriage that is even more abusive than the regular slaps and hits she got from her mother.

There’s a version of this story in which Harding plays the innocent with regards to her teammate and one-time friend Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, who is barely in the film) and the infamous knee clubbing. Told one way, Gillooly and his supremely dumb friend Shawn Eckhardt (absolute scene-stealer Paul Walter Hauser) set up the beat-down, leaving Harding somewhat in the dark. Another telling places her in the know but peripherally involved. However you choose to believe it, it’s clear that the assault was the tip of the iceberg in Harding’s less-than-princess life. She was made to feel all the more like an ugly duckling by being involved in a sport that was often run and judged like a beauty pageant. And there was no way that her routines, as expertly executed as they were, were going to be judged fairly while she skated to terrible rock and country anthems.

Robbie’s expression of Harding’s self doubt is more than just believable; it’s downright tragic. There’s a part of her performance that makes it abundantly clear that Tonya believes she deserves some part of the loser qualities her life takes on. By the time I, Tonya winds down, it feels like we have a better understanding of what her dreams were and why they were so important to her. Her anxiety and bitterness later in life are well earned, because more than winning, Harding just wanted recognition for being the best. Adding even more color to an already colorful life are appearances by Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s coach Diane Rawlinson and Bobby Cannavale as a “Hard Copy” producer attempting to get to the bottom of the Harding-Kerrigan incident.

If you go into I, Tonya thinking you’re getting a freak show, you may be disappointed. Instead what emerges is a nuanced, subversive, diamond-cutter of a film that may not always be reliable as we seek the truth, but it makes for a hell of a story however you slice it. This is one of the year’s best, with a handful of 2017’s finest performances at its core.

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