It’s odd, but the whole Tonya Harding thing is what got me interested in figure skating. I didn’t really have much of an opinion of her one way or another coming up to the ‘94 Olympics. But the “incident” as this movie calls it, in which a mysterious stranger attacked rival Nancy Kerrigan and whacked her leg. Suddenly there were a thousand late night jokes, and I tended to watch that crap in those days. I definitely remember when Nancy Kerrigan hosted SNL, because I’ve watched nearly episode of that show.
So I’m guess in a way I’m just as complicit as everyone else.
I, Tonya comes from director Craig Gillespie and is loosely based on a series of interviews, footage, and other material. Apparently Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney) was not available, and co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) passed away ten years ago. The movie plays around a bit with fourth wall breaking in the first half or so, interrupting scenes for characters to tell you that the scene didn’t happen that way.
Everything is wrapped around the “current” versions of Tonya, Jeff Gillooly, and LaVona interviewing and commenting wryly on things. Although no one looks exactly like the people they’re portraying, Allison Janney’s transformation is impeccable.
We are shown a few quick scenes of Tonya growing up in Portland, Oregon, a prodigy even as a young girl and trained by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to become a serious competitor. We are also shown how awful and abusive LaVona is as a mother, and eventually Tonya’s father flees, leaving his pre-teen daughter abandoned with an abusive woman. Of course, LaVona in the movie tells us this never happened, but the movie is strongly on Tonya’s side throughout.
Eventually Tonya (now Margot Robbie from teenager to forty-something) meets and starts a relationship with local idiot Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Despite their connection and his mild romantic overtures, he’s also someone who physically abused her — these scenes are shown in the movie, and the darkness of this is broken up by them commenting to the audience about whether or not it really happened.
There’s a bit of a drag at times during the first half, but the movie really rolls once we get to the serious competition moments. We see Tonya pulling off the exceptionally difficult triple axel (a sort of risky backwards throw and twirl, which is brought up later as a thematic connection) but also struggling because she doesn’t fit the standard appearance of an American figure skater.
The movie clearly indicts the system itself to imply that Tonya never really had a fair shot to compete despite her talents. This is a debatable question, but a film does need to have a point of view. We get literally no dialog from Kerrigan herself (here played by Caitlin Carver) and a few brief scenes of her. Her perspective is unimportant.
Eventually the movie gets into the scheme and circumstances leading up to and resulting from the “incident,” and the movie again takes the easy way out by making the deceased Shawn the buffoon, the real idiot behind the plan. It’s a comedy of errors, leading to emotional pathos when Tonya loses everything.
Margot Robbie is really great here, embodying this character without attempting to do a caricature (like all those late night parodies), and the supporting cast is also quite strong. It’s not exactly like 100% accuracy, but the spirit of the story goes through; Allison Janney is particularly great as the horrible stage mother.
The movie is funny, which is important, otherwise it’d be a drag. I don’t think the fourth-wall breaking thing went too far here, but it could turn some people off in its sort of Scorsese pastiche. In a year of many interesting actress performances, this is one of the better ones, but it’s also a pretty fun movie.
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I, Tonya has a run time of 1 hour 59 minutes and is rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity.