“I thought being famous was gonna be fun.”
Though I expected an intense drama centered around the “incident” of 1994, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a surprising dark comedy that centers around Harding’s sluggish upbringing and unorthodox rise from brash child prodigy to the center piece in a worldwide Olympic scandal.
Gillespie quickly delves into a serious of interviews that introduce us to Tonya (Margot Robbie), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and a few others. It is through these interview snippets that the narrative takes shape, even if you immediately question its validity given its source.
Margot Robbie, with a sly smile, smacks her gum to the beat of her own drum as she flawlessly embodies Harding from her rebellious teen years through present day. Her demeanor is confrontational, intense and reckless. Her story (if true) is heart wrenching as she tells of the many obstacles she faced, working to compete with her wealthier, more angelic competitors.
Allison Janney, in a career defining performances, plays Tonya’s foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, alcoholic mother LaVona. A woman never fully suited for motherhood, LaVona wants nothing more than to tear her daughter down while pushing her to the top. Her approach to parenting is interesting to say the least, and the two woman bear some intense exchanges as Tonya’s career (and hormones) advance.
But under the witty banter and cold heart there lies a pair of troubled souls that can’t seem to break free of the curse that life has plagued them with. At one point during Harding’s run at Nationals she receives low scores, prompting her to impulsively skate out onto the ice and demand to know why. The answer she gets hits hard as it isn’t her skating, but more so how she presents herself and interacts with the public; two things that even a triple axle cannot overcome.
This proves to be a common theme throughout the film as Harding fights against the system, refusing to play their game as she performs to rock music, smokes in the locker room and attempts to create her own outfits on a tight budget. The information, true or not, shines a bright light on the world of professional sports, an unfunny underlying message at the core of Harding’s story.
Also intermixed within the humor is the issue of domestic violence. Though stories vary from both Harding and ex-husband Jeff, they both agree that their marriage was filled with disorder. Gillespie’s comedic spin is impressive, though the seriousness of the issue should not be lost within the laughs. It’s effect on Hardings skating aside, it personifies the ugly, unfortunate hill that Harding was working to overcome.
As the story enters the third act and we come face to face with the Kerrigan incident, it is hard not to feel for our lead protagonist. While again, Harding’s retelling isn’t necessarily true, the public backlash both before and during the Olympics was harsh. Gillespie successfully dives into the events before, during and after, but it is ultimately the courtroom scene where Harding learns that she will never be able to skate again that hits the hardest. The heartache is real as you witness someone loose the thing most important to them.
Whether that level of emotion is warranted or not, I, Tonya doesn’t answer that. But a good run of laughs and a pair of stellar performances it most definitely does.