Review by J.T. Johnson
Back in 1994, I remember hearing about the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and the uproar over the involvement of another figure skater Tonya Harding. From the way the news sounded, it was as though Harding herself had snuck up on Kerrigan and hit her in the knee with the telescopic baton. “I, Tonya” aims to somewhat clear up some of the misconceptions about what exactly happened… sort of.
At the top of the movie, it is stated that the film is inspired by true events. It also humorously makes the point that this film’s story also comes from contradictory interviews with Harding (Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as well as others involved in Harding’s life. The darkly humorous tone is found throughout the entire movie.
The story is cleverly told as a sort of mocumentary where the characters throughout often break the fourth wall. Still, even though the movie does contain its fair share of dark comedy, it still manages to take its subject seriously. Harding is a woman that was driven to succeed at skating by her domineering and mean-as-hell mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney).
She then gets married to Jeff, a man that turns out to be a wildly abusive husband depending on who you ask. Still, the real tragedy is that Harding is an extremely talented skater, but unfortunately she is often ignored by judges who look down on her because of her “white trash” upbringing.
This movie is one of those stories that is so out there and beyond absurd that it has to have some truth to it. With the dark humor involved, this could have been a film that utterly made fun of Harding, but it takes the high road for the most part. This is mostly due to Robbie and her stellar portrayal of Harding.
After her performance in “Wolf of Wall Street” and the fact that she was the best part of the otherwise godawful “Suicide Squad”, I’m convinced that Robbie is one of the best actresses of this generation. She does know how to appropriately get the chuckles in the audience, but she never betrays the hardships that Harding grew up with. Thankfully, even though the film does rest mostly on Robbie’s shoulders, there are those around her who also give memorable performances.
Stan is great as the undereducated and not-so-bright Gillooly. At first, he is a seemingly sweet man and it is easy to see why Harding fell for him. Unfortunately, not long after the marriage, he turns out to be the biggest hinderance to Harding’s quest for stardom on the ice rink due to his destructive nature. Stan knows how to play both the sweet husband and the abusive partner and it is truly up to the audience to decide who is telling the truth about Harding and Gillooly’s undoubtedly volatile relationship.
Finally, there is the always outstanding Janney as Harding’s foul-mouthed, overbearing and also abusive mother. Every time Janney is onscreen, she steals the show from the other actors and shows them how acting is really done and on top of that, she makes it seem effortless. Along with Robbie, Janney has been nominated for an Oscar and it is a well deserved nomination.
My only problem with the movie is the skating sequences. There are times where you know Robbie is skating, but they then try a little bit of digital trickery to make the more complicated moves work. These special-effects don’t always work and it is a distraction. Thankfully, the skating is secondary to telling Harding’s overall life story and only a minor issue.
Bolstered by a fantastic performance from its cast and a weird yet believable story, “I, Tonya” is an interesting take on class in America and one woman’s ultimately tragic obsession with achieving fame and fortune. It is both funny and dramatic but it is always faithful to the (somewhat) true story that it is based on.