Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Rated R for pervasive crude language, violence and some sexuality and nudity
Where were you on Friday, Jan. 6, 1994? Maybe catching the early afternoon newscast that opened with an unreal lead story: Nancy Kerrigan backstage after a practice session during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, writhing in pain on the floor and screaming “Why? Why? Why?”
It was the damnedest thing to happen in the refined world of figure skating, reserved for the thoroughbred or the powerfully driven; the deep-pocketed or the underwritten.
In the middle of it, ultimately, is Tonya Harding, the rough-and-tumble tomboy who lived to skate. Had it not really happened, the carnival of abuse, the 150-proof crazy that was her life and the volatile characters around her would have been turned down as a movie idea. Too absurd.
Yet, behold I, Tonya. What was then tabloid fodder is now a darkly hilarious, painfully poignant, mostly sympathetic account of Harding’s life, through the Kerrigan incident and slightly beyond. I, Tonya could be compared to I, Tina, the Tina Turner autobiography that became the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? Where the latter is a story of a woman rising from violent oppression to triumph, the former recedes from ignominy to near anonymity.
Written by Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) in semi-documentary style, à la Martin Scorsese or Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the tale of Harding’s wrestling match with life, this treatise on class, unfolds authentically, deliberately, ironically.
Screen Actors’ Guild Award nominee Margot Robbie, like Charlize Theron before her in Monster, is an actress of astonishing beauty who takes on the role of schlubby Tonya and transforms. She’s taller, but she is Tonya — a soul broken and bent by her hard-hearted, chain-smoking, vile mother, LaVona. Here’s a woman with a mouth that would make Samuel L. Jackson blush. She’s a physically and mentally abusive battleaxe that you can’t believe conceived and delivered a human life. When asked her daughter’s age, she insists Tonya is “. . . a soft four.”
In massive eyeglass frames, under what looks like Ringo Starr’s Beatle-cut, LaVona is played to the nth degree by Allison Janney, rewarded Sunday with a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She’s more brilliant and ominously dry than ever. It’s an understatement to say that Tonya’s role as most-hated woman in America germinated at LaVona’s hands and then became systemic under the mewling wrath of her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, in a mustache ripped from beneath the nose of a 1930s movie gigolo, with a hairstyle straight from John Dillinger’s mug shot).
Stan’s Gillooly is a feckless cretin for whom the short time in prison must have been an unpleasant experience, at best. He’s remembered now as the name that stuck in Tom Brokaw’s mouth like a ladle full of peanut butter. His running buddy, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a tremulous tub of goo, ultimately shoulders the blame for the scheme gone wrong. It’s as if all of these people, including Tonya, who was the first American skater to execute the triple axel, trod through life with an enormous “L” affixed to their foreheads.
In real life, LaVona stood before a press gaggle and sang a ridiculous ditty in support of her estranged daughter. I, Tonya’s depiction of the estrangement seems more appropriate. You may make note when you see this inherently watchable film. Though, afterward, you may feel like you’ve been in a sty, rolling around with pigs. We realize where Tonya Harding’s desperation came from, and understand the need to tell her story outside the prism of tabloid TV. Her constant refrain of “It wasn’t my fault” begins to ring hollow, though. The abuse wasn’t her fault. Her own actions were, and neither justified attacking a competitor.