Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale
If you thought you knew the story of Tonya Harding then think again. I, Tonya takes unique approach at telling her side of the story. The film is structured around on-camera interviews with key players in Harding’s life and those involved in the infamous battle between her and Nancy Kerrigan. It starts off going back to Tonya’s early skating days as she grew up to become one of the greatest skaters to hit the ice. Yes, you read that correctly. She was the first American female skater to land a triple axel in competition. She was a tough competitor through and through; partly due to the harsh relationship she had with her mother, LaVona (Janney). She is the quintessential definition of an abusive mother. She is physically and mentally destructive to Tonya from a very early age throwing things at her, slapping her around, you name it. She claims Tonya “skated better when she was enraged.” Mother of the year award material.
It doesn’t get any better when she started dating Jeff, played by Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It was love at first sight for them when they met on the rink. He was her first boyfriend, but it became a relationship filled with physical abuse. Don’t be surprised to learn that LaVona supports his abuse toward her daughter. Tonya becomes a skating sensation, but her fourth place finish at the 1992 Olympics was a big blow for her as she watches others move up in the rankings. When it comes to the 1994 Olympics, it was Jeff who plotted the attack against her rival competitor Nancy Kerrigan who Tonya claimed was a friend of hers.
Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats) give I, Tonya a documentary feel as each of the main characters is given their time to address the camera and tell their side of the story. Tonya, LaVona, and Jeff all see life a bit differently, which affirms the craziness at hand with what really happened throughout Tonya’s life and career. They’re based on real interviews given throughout the scandal as noted in the end when they’re featured over the credits. You can see how precise the film’s replication is to capture their very essence. I, Tonya becomes a lesson on how someone becomes a product of their environment. Tonya admits to being a redneck and has a hard time overcoming the stigma placed on her – not just by sports enthusiasts but also by Olympic officials as we see in one scene where she’s told her looks are contributing to her scores. Her behavior and personality starts to align when you understand the people she is surrounded by day in and day out and how she has hard time becoming something greater than those around her.
Margot Robbie has made a dynamic presence for herself since her debut role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She seems in complete control of her career picking varied roles since then, and with Tonya Harding, gives her best performance to date. She’s electric and a force to be reckoned with as the Olympic skater. She plays Tonya with desperation to prove herself and to be loved by others. She never plays into caricature and gets you to emphasize and understand her in a way that counters everything we’ve come to associate with the name Tonya Harding. Playing her vicious mother, LaVona, is character actress Allison Janney. She’s a seven-time Emmy winner who has a strong shot at adding the Oscar to her mantle with how blunt and unapologetic she makes LaVona. You can’t help but laugh as an outcry for how ludicrous she acts at any given moment.
A terrific supporting ensemble joins Robbie and Janney with every actor bringing in their own level of nuttiness to the movie. Sebastian Stan proves he’s more than just an Avenger as Jeff Gillooly. In one moment he’s tasked with having these sweet puppy dog eyes for Tonya, yet in the next, he’s the abusive boyfriend. He reminded me of Steve Buscemi in Fargo once the plan is set in place for Nancy Kerrigan’s attack. Paul Walter Hauser is memorable as Jeff’s buffoon of a friend Shawn.
There’s a trainwreck quality to her life where you can’t take your eyes off the movie as the characters and story seem too bizarre to be true. I’m not even certain the filmmakers know the real truth of what happened. I, Tonya has that Coen Brothers darkly comedic sensibility mixed with Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman. I see a variety of biopics in any given year oftentimes using sports as their basis. Director Craig Gillespie wisely takes an alternative approach, a vast improvement over his last sports biopic, Million Dollar Arm. The film rides the line of absurdity without ever feeling like the movie is making fun of Tonya Harding. You may find yourself thinking of her in a whole new light, which is challenging for someone that America wanted to hate.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Part comedy. Part tragedy. Part indescribable.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKE STUBS