Tonally different and more daring than any biopic from recent memory, the comedy-slash-drama-slash-mockumentary I, Tonya takes huge risks and reaps rewards in its retelling of the sordid life and times of one of tabloid televison’s greatest living punchlines: disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding. Blending outlandish humour with sometimes chilling moments of realistic peril and tragedy, director Craig Gillespie’s atypical biography likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who see it will assuredly have more empathy and understanding for the controversial figurehead at its centre.
Harding (Margot Robbie, who also produces), an Oregonian so far on the wrong side of the tracks that she was often branded as a hillbilly, was pushed into the image conscious world of skating at an early age by her demanding, icy hearted mother (Allison Janney). Tonya worked hard to achieve any amount of success that she could, but in a sport where pageantry was part and parcel with performance, the rough hewn and ill tempered young woman was often frozen out of any real accolades on the ice. Even when she made it to major sporting events on a global level, Harding was still looked down upon by figure skating judges and tastemakers.
Enter Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her on and off again boyfriend and ex-husband. Although physically and verbally abusive towards Tonya in their worst moments, Jeff would always go the extra mile for her. When Tonya feels she’s suddenly a pawn in a game of psychological warfare with some of her colleagues fighting for slots on the U.S. Olympic team, it leads Jeff and his imbecilic best buddy, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to concoct a plan – an “incident” as the film’s characters call it – that will force Tonya to the top of the skating world that worked so hard to keep her out.
“Everyone knows ‘the incident,’” Stan’s Gillooly says around the midpoint of I, Tonya, so there’s no sense in beating around the bush with it in this review. For those who might have forgotten – and if you were alive when it happened, I doubt you could escape it – Gillooly, Eckhardt, and Harding were accused and convicted of various conspiratorial charges tied to an assault on Tonya’s former teammate and America’s sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan. Happening during the relative infancy of the now ever present 24-hour news cycle, the Harding soon found her name linked to national disgrace and disgust. Her previous accomplishments faded away. Her personal backstory and struggles weren’t of any interest to the public at large.
Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom) have constructed their version of Tonya’s life based around “wildly contradictory” interviews that were conducted in reality with Harding and Gillooly. Amid dramatizations of what happened, Robbie, Stan, Janney, and Hauser conduct fourth-wall breaking dialogues with the audience, as if they were taking part in a documentary. What emerges is an entertaining, uneasy, and messy picture of events told in half truths that are easy to understand and impossibly to verify with any degree of veracity. While one gets the sense that Robbie’s Harding is telling something closest to the actual truth, there’s always doubt cast upon what she knew and when she knew it. It’s a testament to the balance shown by Gillespie and Rogers that the film allows for both gray areas and sympathy towards the main character.
Harding, prior to her infamy, had made just as much of a career out of getting knocked down and getting up again as she did as a skater. Her mother tries mightily to make Tonya feel worthless and talentless, despite funding her skating. Jeff, when provoked or triggered, resorts to physical violence like a child. Skating judges all but tell her that her penchant for heavy metal and threadbare, homespun outfits on the ice lead to poor scores that aren’t a judgment of talent, but of who Tonya is as a person. Robbie expertly plays Harding as both empowered and bitter, and the film explains why she has the right to feel both ways, regardless of what one thinks of her culpability and guilt in the assault on Kerrigan.
Gillespie surrounds Robbie with a game cast of supporting players, particularly Janney’s show stealing and acerbic turn as Tonya’s mother and Hauser’s hilarious portraiture of the skater’s pseudo-bodyguard. Visually and narratively, I, Tonya might be a bit of a shaggy dog; rough around the edges and in need of some smoothing out. But those inconsistencies are what makes I, Tonya a reflection of the people who got involved in some poor decisions. It sticks the landing whenever it counts, and it’s made with an ambition that makes this the most boundary pushing effort from all parties involved. It’s not perfect, but in a world filled with safe bets clouding up multiplexes everywhere, we could use more films like I, Tonya.
I, Tonya opens exclusively at Cineplex Varsity in Toronto on Friday, December 22, 2017. It expands across Canada on Friday, January 5.
Check out the trailer for I, Tonya: