I, Tonya – 2017
Director Craig Gillespie
Screenplay by Steven Rogers
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlin Carver, Paul Walter Hauser
For all of the stupidity, abuse and backwards ways of thinking, I never could get past the idea that Tonya Harding couldn’t be that bad. The fact that the chosen hero of “the incident” Nancy Kerrigan broke up a marriage herself seemed to have faded into horizon as history just kept laughing at Harding’s attempts to climb back out of the hole that just kept swallowing her. In the end, both had pretty hard lives from the point of their historic intersection with history.
What I, Tonya manages to do marvelously is to put a human spirit in place of the dark comic masterpiece of disaster that is Harding’s life. Many times throughout this tale do we hear her (roughly played by Robbie) utter that it wasn’t her fault. This usually occurs at the times where she had at least some culpability. Other times, when she’s being upbraided and generally abused by her oppressive mother LaVona (Janney) she puts on a brave face. Even when she pees on the ice, she just keeps twirling and skating.
She’s angry, to be sure. She’s even more desperate to get her due. It isn’t going to happen here, or anywhere.
What I, Tonya does so well is to give us a definite feel for the absurdity and sadness that pervades Harding’s meager existence. If we take the story as gospel – and it definitely is plausible – she never had a chance. Harding is abandoned by her father when his 12 hour days prevented him from taking her away from her miserable mother. LaVona, who had pushes her into her talent since she is a “soft 4,” keeps paying for her skating while making her pay for not being tough.
Janney’s LaVona is simultaneously funny and horrific. She’s the true villain of the story, seemingly with no redeeming qualities. I have no idea if LaVona is truly the kind of person that would not apologize for drawing blood. Janney is excellent here. She’s bitterness encapsulated in the body of the waitress you’d never want serving you food. She definitely deserves the accolades she’s received for the performance, even if I like Metcalf’s better.
Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gillooly is abusive too, but he’s so clueless that he is as much a nuisance as threat. The interplay of interviews versus footage works well with his performance. He is at times sympathetic, mostly comical and even occasionally dangerously violent.
By the time she comes to know him, though, she’s giving a return on his investment of violence. She has also managed to master the triple axle and lift herself into contention as an Olympic hopeful. Robbie does an admirable take on the doomed champion skater, even if they work a little too hard to make her look average. Harding may be from white trash, but she has never been ugly.
I don’t know if this film will work for everyone as well as for me. I appreciated the performances, the pacing and the ability to break the third wall without taking the viewer out of the story. Harding has been explaining herself for so long, seeing her do it to the camera here fits like a glove.
Gillespie and Rogers work well in tandem to bring life to a story that, for all of its absurdity, had the potential for beauty that is always just out of reach. For me it justifies the feeling that she has been given abuse by the public that far outweighs any crime she did not go out of her way to reveal.
I pray for Tonya Harding, because in her we see a grace beyond the garish makeup and the constant battle against gravity dragging. In her, I see myself.
(***** out of *****)