‘I, Tonya’ complicates an infamous sports scandal
R | Drama/Sport | 2h | 4 / 5 stars
On Jan. 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted after a practice session in Detroit. Before long, it emerged that fellow skater Tonya Harding might have had something to do with it. While Kerrigan went on to win the silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics, Harding was banned for life from professional figure skating. Almost a quarter-century later, Harding remains a pariah in the public eye. According to the onscreen text at the start of the film, the tragicomedy biopic “I, Tonya,” is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. The film uses them to ask us: What if our notions about her were wrong?
Starting at the age of a “soft four,” working-class Tonya Harding demonstrates an incredible knack for figure skating. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, under the sole control of her cruel mother, LaVona, Tonya trains extensively with coach Diane Rawlinson. At 20, Tonya becomes the first American woman to land a triple axel jump in competition. But Tonya’s refusal to adhere to skating’s ideal image of a wholesome, balletic woman leads her to never fully fit in. As the 1994 Winter Olympics near, Tonya’s abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his delusional friend, Shawn, come up with a plan to reclaim the spotlight for her that involves intimidating teammate Nancy Kerrigan. What follows is one of the biggest scandals that professional sports has ever known.
As Tonya, Margot Robbie gives a nonjudgmental performance that exhibits the figure skater’s many sides. Belittled her whole life, Tonya is an ambitious, hot-tempered and unapologetic woman determined to prove the haters wrong about her rural background, homemade skating costumes and taste in music. At the same time, the severe lack of love in Tonya’s life continually leads her into bad situations and, because being treated poorly is all she’s ever known, she can’t seem to escape. While the film exonerates Tonya to some degree, it ultimately lets her off the hook a bit too easy regarding the minor degree to which she was involved in the attempt to derail Kerrigan’s Olympics prospects. Sebastian Stan brings a bizarre charm to Jeff, who genuinely believes in Tonya’s abilities yet has no shame in assaulting her whenever she won’t pay attention to him. In the present day, though, Jeff seems sorry for ruining Tonya’s career through his involvement in “the incident.” As LaVona, Allison Janney’s delivery of deadpan one-liners (“The fucking moustache,” she says upon realizing that Jeff is the one who attacked Kerrigan) make her a hoot to watch. Working full-time and overtime as a waitress to fund her daughter’s career, LaVona’s form of tough love both motivates and limits Tonya because, by her standards, nothing Tonya ever does is good enough.
The film presents itself in a pseudo-mockumentary style, where the present-day versions of the characters talk to the camera as they look back on what happened, and flashback re-enactments depict those events. At several points, the flashback versions of the characters talk directly to the camera too. During the intense scenes where Jeff attacks Tonya, she breaks the fourth wall and speaks matter-of-factly to show her emotional disconnection in such violent moments. The past and present narrative threads are also not afraid to contradict each other. After present-day Jeff talks about the time Tonya chased him out of their house with a rifle, past Tonya insists to the camera, “I never did this,” while reloading said rifle. Present-day Tonya even interrupts the action twice to make a comment on Kerrigan, who has barely any scenes and whose only spoken line of dialogue is her wounded “Why?!” cry.
In the film’s final speech, Tonya denies that there is such a thing as truth. “Everyone has their own truth,” she insists. “I, Tonya” tells the story of Tonya Harding’s life — as she remembers it. Funny and sad, it humanizes a woman longing for acceptance as she looks back on her glory days, lamenting the moment that will remain her legacy, no matter how much distance time gives her.
I, Tonya is showing now in theaters. Watch the trailer below:
I, Tonya Trailer #1 (2017): Check out the official trailer starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastian Stan! Be the first to watch, comment, and share trailers and movie teasers/clips dropping soon @MovieclipsTrailers.
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