Tonya Harding is someone you likely have strong feelings on (if you were alive in 1994 when “the event” went down, that is).
She’s best known as the figure skater who had ties to the incident in which her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted and had her knee broken. At the time, despite her raw talent, Harding was hated and embarrassed — being a punchline of a joke far more than an athlete who was taken seriously.
Thirteen years later and the world has either forgotten or chosen to ignore Tonya Harding.
And then, along comes I, Tonya — a new biopic from director Craig Gillespie that challenges the audience to think of the controversial figure in a whole new light.
Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) didn’t exactly have what one might consider a normal childhood. Her father left while she was still young, leaving Harding alone to face the wrath of her mother — LaVona Golden (Allison Janney).
In defense of LaVona, she truly wants her daughter to become a great figure skater. She brings her to practice every day and pays for her trainers.
However, LaVona is not a good mother. In fact, she’s a down right terrible mother. She constantly pushes her daughter too far, at times becoming abusive.
Tonya tries her best to not let it get to her. And, to her credit, she manages to get pretty far. She eventually becomes the first female skater to complete two triple axel jumps while in competition — a fact often forgotten by most people (which Robbie brilliantly points out during on of the ‘mockumentary’ like scenes).
The problem is that Tonya doesn’t fit into the mold of other figure skaters. She is, by her own admittance, “white trash.” Due to her upbringing, she doesn’t have the money to afford the fancy costumes the rest of the skaters have and would far rather do her routine to a ZZ Top song rather than a classical piece.
Yet, despite her shortcomings, Tonya’s fame begins to rise more and more. It’s around this time she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who eventually becomes her husband, despite the fact that he too often abuses Tonya.
And then the incident happens. “The reason you all came to see the movie,” as Robbie points out in another scene. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) has her knee-cap broken after Jeff makes some kind of shady deal with a man named Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
Tonya was never able to recover from this moment, nor was she allowed to skate after it happened. And the world has never stopped judging her ever since.
I, Tonya is a risky movie. They’re taking a figure that is disliked by most people and telling the story from her point of view. Not only that, but they’re doing so in a darkly comedic tone. It’s a questionable move at best, as the victims — the real people who lived through this and got hurt — are all still alive today.
Which is entirely the point of I, Tonya and the reason the movie is such a triumph. At no point during the film do they try to make excuses for what happened in 1994. They own up to everything that happened and don’t dodge around any of the shady parts (as a good biopic should). At times, this means certain characters can be sympathetic and at other times they’re downright unlikable.
Yet, I, Tonya isn’t asking the audience to root for Tonya. They aren’t even asking them to forgive her. The film is simply here so you can understand her backstory and what happened.
In doing so, we see a side of a story that hasn’t been previously reported on — all the shit she had to endure and how f*cked up her life is. Not that having a miserable childhood is an excuse for breaking someone’s kneecap, but it does lend sympathy towards a character we might be prone to dislike.
In doing so, I, Tonya delivers an important message to always look at the whole story. It’s easy to give into news reports and think of Tonya Harding as a low-life skater who has done some pretty bad things in her past. What’s a lot harder to do is think of her as a real human being, who had to struggle her entire life, and was simply looking for a way out of her situation. There’s a great scene towards the end of the movie where Robbie comments on the fact that Nancy Kerrigan came in second at the Olympics and still looked like she didn’t want to be there, which really sets the whole event into an entirely new perspective.
Of course, one can’t go this entire review without talking about just how magnificent Margot Robbie is in the lead role. Her Oscar nomination proves how she captures all the complexity of this character. At times, Robbie can communicate all of Harding’s inner feelings without relying on dialogue, instead using nothing more than a forced smile or sad whimper.
Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney also deliver two unforgettable performances. Janney is receiving a lot of awards buzz for her role, and rightfully so, but Stan is sadly getting overlooked. Yet, Stan is completely unrecognizable in this role (especially in the mockumentary scenes where they make him look older) and deserves more credit than he’s getting.
Finally, the tone that the film choses to take is one that surprisingly works well — at least when they indulge it to the fullest. Given that the subject matter of I, Tonya is such a bizarre story, they’re able to get a lot of milage out of absurd and unexpected comedy (one scene involving a parking lot absolutely killed me). However, the film can’t fully commit to this way of storytelling, and will often fall back on standard biopic tropes — especially in the first act. And, while we’re speaking towards the negatives, the movie has, like, three different endings.
However, I, Tonya just might be the movie that America needs to see now. The film does something I’ve rarely seen other movies do — it challenges audiences to think about how they’re wrong. Wrong in the sense that Tonya Harding may not be the monster she was at once made out to be. Yes, breaking someone’s kneecap is wrong. However, no-one is strictly one-dimensional nor should they be defined by simply one action. Everyone is fighting their own battles and Tonya Harding, dare I say, has had to fight far more than any of us.
Check out the trailer for I, Tonya here and let us know what you thought of the movie in the comments below!
Skating on a very thin ice: 'I, Tonya' review8