I, Tonya

i-tonya--rev I, Tonya  (2017)    Neon/Comedy-Drama    RT: 119 minutes    Rated R (pervasive language, violence, some sexual content, nudity)    Director: Craig Gillespie    Screenplay: Steven Rogers    Music: Peter Nashel    Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis    Release date: December 22, 2016 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Shaw, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace, Caitlin Carver.


 I don’t know about anyone else but I believed figure skater Tonya Harding when she claimed to have no knowledge beforehand of the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994. Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against her from the beginning. Between her white trash upbringing and her abusive ex-husband’s criminal associates, nobody was ever going to give her a fair shake. After competing in that year’s Winter Olympics (and coming in eighth), she was found guilty of hindering prosecution and barred from her sport for life. It seemed to me officials were just looking for a reason to oust her because she didn’t fit the squeaky-clean image of a professional figure skater. It still grinds my gears a little.

 I can’t say for sure what really happened that day in January but Tonya’s story still makes for compelling viewing as evidenced by I, Tonya, a darkly humorous mockumentary-style look at her life by way of interviews with key figures (all played by actors) in the 1994 scandal. Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) does something rather clever here. He recorded interviews with the real life persons (e.g. Tonya, ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, mom LaVona, etc.) and had his actors reenact them for his movie as a framing device. It works very nicely.

 I toniaMargot Robbie (Suicide Squad) stars as Tonya Harding, a figure skater with natural talent and athletic ability. Unlike her peers, she wasn’t a spoiled child of privilege. She had a tough upbringing with an abusive mother (Janney, American Beauty) who cruelly pushed the girl (played as a child by McKenna Grace of Gifted) beyond her limits to always be the best. As a teen, she meets Gillooly (Shaw, the Captain America movies) and marries him as a means of escaping her mother. It’s all for naught as he also beats on her. Meanwhile, Tonya must also deal with the bias against her by the figure skating community for being “white trash”.

 When she makes it to the 1994 Winter Olympics, now ex-husband Gillooly’s scumbag friend, Tonya’s self-appointed bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser) arranges for two of his associates to attack and disable Kerrigan after a practice session. The FBI gets involved and the public eventually turns against Tonya despite her claims that she knows nothing about the attack.

 One of the things I, Tonya does best is capture the superficiality of the figure skating community, one that would never fully embrace Tonya due to her socioeconomic status. With her frizzy ponytail and homemade costumes, she simply didn’t fit in. It didn’t matter that she had natural athletic ability; she’s the first to cleanly land a triple-axel in competition. That’s no easy feat. But, as one of the judges tells her, they rate skaters on more than performance. This is one of the major contributors to her tragic downfall.

 I, Tonya not mocks the sport and its theatricality, it’s also makes fun of the idiots surrounding Tonya. Gillooly, as played by Stan, is a dim bulb with a porno mustache. He starts off as a joke but transforms into a monster as his violent side starts to emerge and his emotional grip on Tonya tightens. His pal Shawn is a bigger idiot with delusions of being some kind of criminal mastermind with connections to federal agencies. With friends like these, Tonya was screwed long before Kerrigan’s knee got smashed. It doesn’t, however, make fun of Tonya herself. She’s seen as a sympathetic figure who endured years of physical and verbal abuse from supposed loved ones. Robbie, who learned to skate for the part, does an incredible job as Tonya. Okay, she makes for a rather mature-looking 15-year-old but it’s easy to look past this. Her performance makes you see past the Tonya the public thinks they know. We see the sadness and sense of low self-worth that lies beneath the tough athletic swagger. There’s a scene between Tonya and her mother near the end that’s positively heartbreaking.

 Speaking of the mother, Janney turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as the rink mother from hell. She depicts LaVona as a hard, cold-hearted, chain-smoking woman who becomes increasingly abrasive as the movie progresses. We understand why she’s like this once she talks about her own upbringing yet I, Tonya never tries to excuse her behavior. Julianne Nicholson (Law & Order: CI) also does well as Tonya’s polite coach who can’t believe LaVona’s bad behavior. Grace, in her few scenes as young Tonya, is also very good.

 Gillespie makes some nice soundtrack choices. One of my favorite scenes in I, Tonya is the scene of Gillooly’s empty house after Tonya leaves him for good. The camera fluidly pans around the interior while “Goodbye Stranger” (by Supertramp) plays. Great choice. I also love that “Devil Woman” (by Cliff Richard) plays when LaVona first brings little Tonya to the rink to be trained. The use of unreliable narrators makes I, Tonya all the more entertaining. It makes you wonder about the truth behind this whole farce. It reminds of Gus Van Sant’s brilliant To Die For (1995), also based on a real life crime. It’s darkly comic and dark at the same time. It’s one of the year’s best movies.

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