i, tonya

In the 1990s, the story of figure skater Tonya Harding dominated the early days of the 24-hour news cycle. It was the testing ground for where news was headed, away from reporting and into gossip. It would be repeated tenfold by the O.J. Simpson trial, which came after the Harding incident was dying down. By then, the media was learning a valuable lesson: everyone loves a juicy story with a lot of dirt.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya trades in gossip, but it also wants to get to the truth. The truth that many people probably don’t even know. For most people, Tonya Harding is little more than a punchline. I, Tonya wants to remind you she’s also a person.

But then there’s the question of tone.

I, Tonya is sympathetic to Harding, mostly. But it’s also a very tongue-in-cheek film, painting nearly everyone around Harding as either a monster, an abuser, an incompetent boob, or sometimes all three. Gillespie takes a Martin Scorsese-lite approach to how he tells the story, full of quick zooms, fourth-wall breaks and an overwhelming amount of needle drops. Call it The Wolf of Wall Street On Ice.

Margot Robbie plays Tonya, and she’s damned good in the part. It’s a fine reminder of what a talented actress Robbie is, especially after her shaky performance in Suicide Squad. Robbie plays Tonya as rough around the edges; a self-proclaimed redneck who never fit in, and only really came alive when she was on the ice.

Tonya’s childhood is not a happy one. She’s pushed into competitive skating by her abusive, abrasive mother, played by Allison Janney, who steals the entire film with a hilarious, shocking, foul-mouthed performance. There’s absolutely no sense of love coming from Tonya’s mom; she just wants her daughter to beat everyone else, consequences be damned.

When Tonya gets older she falls in love with the under-achiever Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan). Jeff and Tonya seem made for each other at first, but the relationship turns abusive fast, with Jeff frequently striking Tonya, or worse.

If all this sounds particularly bleak, it is. Or rather, it should be. But I, Tonya’s darkly comedic tone keeps it from becoming too overwhelming. It’s a bit of a juggling act, with the script from Steven Rogers finding the humor in the outrageousness of the situation while also trying not to make light of Tonya’s torment.

Tonya is talented – very talented. She’s the only American figure skater to land the triple-axel, and she spends nearly every moment of her life on the ice. Yet this isn’t always enough for the snobbish judges, who look down on Tonya for her vulgar nature and trailer-trash background. Yet Harding is able to overcome the odds and make her way to the Olympics. And that’s when things really fall apart.

“The incident”, as all the characters in the film call it, involving the attack on Harding’s skating rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) comes late in the film, and the script turns the brutal assault into a truly morbid comedy of errors, with the whole thing engineered by Jeff and Tonya’s bodyguard, the annoying Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Interestingly enough, Kerrigan herself is rather elusive to the plot. She’s seen only briefly, and has no lines besides her famous wails of “Why?!” after the attack. This isn’t Kerrigan’s story, it’s Tonya’s, and the script almost doesn’t want Kerrigan to upstage Tonya yet again.

Beneath all the gallows humor there’s a sadness to I, Tonya. A prevailing sense that if Tonya had just had less terrible people in her life, her path could’ve been much different and much less tragic. Tonya continually makes poor decisions, and it becomes easy to judge her from the distance of a theater audience. But I, Tonya gives her back her humanity in the process as the film draws to a close. It provides some much needed catharsis, but perhaps it’s too little too late. Harding’s skating career, and by extension her life, was completely ruined, and then the tabloid news marched on, on the hunt for fresh meat. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a writer who frowns a lot. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, /Film, Mashable, The Film Stage, Birth.Movies.Death, The Playlist, Paste Magazine, Little White Lies and O-Scope Musings. 'The House on Creep Street' and 'Beware the Monstrous Manther!', two horror books for young readers Chris co-authored with J. Tonzelli, are available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413