I, Tonya is the latest film from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) and is based on the life of former U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding. She is best known for her connection to a 1994 attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, which aimed to injure Kerrigan’s leg so Harding could move up the national rankings. This biopic looks to shed light on the full picture surrounding this infamous event, including Harding’s tough upbringing and all of the fallout after “The Incident.” Gillespie’s film has earned a fair amount of awards buzz as it toured the festival circuit in 2017, and it’s certainly deserving of the praise it’s getting. I, Tonya is a wild and entertaining exploration of one of sport’s most controversial figures, spearheaded by excellent performances from the cast.
As a young girl, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is forced into the realm of skating by her abusive and rough mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Being pulled out of school to dedicate herself to athletics full-time, Tonya quickly becomes one of the best figure skaters in the world, but struggles appealing to the judges because of her appearance and attitude. While Tonya tries to ascend the ranks, she falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and the two later marry so Tonya can finally gain independence from LaVona’s watch, but things aren’t always happy for the pair.
Harding works her way to compete in the 1992 Olympics, but settles for a disappointing fourth-place finish while her friend Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) takes home the bronze medal. Thinking her career is over, Tonya receives a second lease on skating when the next Winter Olympics are planned for 1994. As she trains for what could be her final shot, those around Tonya plot a way to give her an advantage over the competition – one that could lead to devastating consequences if carried out.
I, Tonya‘s tone and style are among its strongest attributes, with Gillespie nailing the execution of a dark comedy. This approach proves to be the best for this particular story, considering all its absurdities. Due to a high-energy pace (with several scenes set to a catchy soundtrack) and a humorous tale of average people getting in over their heads with the law, I, Tonya plays as an amusing blend of Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, keeping the audience engaged throughout its brisk 2-hour runtime. Gillespie also makes great use of mockumentary interviews and fourth-wall breaking to give it an extra dose of panache. While the filmmaker doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel with his handling of the material, it’s still very effective and a welcome alternative to a more straightforward biopic.
Gillespie’s direction is complemented nicely by Steven Rogers’ screenplay, which populates its world with a colorful cast of characters that all stand out. Of course, Robbie’s Tonya is the star of the show, and the part feels like it was tailor-made for the actress. This is the best Robbie has been since her breakout turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, unleashing an unfiltered and raw performance that always demands the viewer’s attention. She fully inhabits Harding’s self-proclaimed redneck persona, showcasing a variety of layers to give the character depth. Some may take issue with the film’s portrayal of Harding (a widely hated villain) as a victim of circumstance, but she’s certainly an intriguing individual to watch and the film never sugarcoats the less-than-savory aspects of her life. Rogers is able to deftly balance the comedy and drama, with Robbie anchoring the film.
Not to be outdone is Janney, who has long been a favorite in several Best Supporting Actress races. She’s definitely earned that status, with a committed performance that’s bluntly hilarious in its vulgarity. Audiences are not meant to like LaVona, and Janney makes sure she’s someone moviegoers will love to hate. Her dynamic with Robbie is a key aspect early on in the film (the script funnily points out when LaVona’s “storyline” has been dropped), with the two playing off each other in captivating fashion to display a dysfunctional and toxic relationship. This is no tale of motherly love – only LaVona’s twisted perception of the concept. She believes she’s doing what’s best for her daughter, but Tonya deserves better.
With regards to the rest of the supporting cast, Paul Walter Hauer is a scene-stealer as Shawn, Jeff’s friend who tries to wage “psychological warfare” against Kerrigan. He joins the pantheon of all-time movie imbeciles with warped delusions of grandeur and is responsible for several of the film’s biggest laughs (see: his constant claims he works in espionage). Stan also excels as Gillooly, getting an opportunity to stretch his acting wings with a performance that asks him to demonstrate a variety of traits to convincing effect. There are moments of sweetness between him and Robbie that show what Jeff and Tonya’s romance could have been before things swing in the opposite direction, and both actors handle their scenes with skill. Julianne Nicholson is also a nice presence as Tonya’s skating coach Diane Rawlinson, providing the point of view of a “regular” person caught up in this madness.
In a crowded field of 2018 awards contenders, I, Tonya is one that stands out and is worth a cinephile’s time at the theater as it expands to more markets. The real-life Harding’s reputation precedes her in the court of public opinion, which could be a sticking point for certain audience members, but for those willing, the movie is a treat. Robbie and Janney are at the top of their games and Gillespie found a way to tell the strange story in a way that combines style with substance. The film isn’t a Best Picture frontrunner, but is a player in other major categories, making it one that’s difficult to miss for those trying to keep up.
I, Tonya is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 120 minutes and is rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity.
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