I, Tonya (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Reinventing the idea of what a biopic can be, this quasi-faux-documentary-style approach to the Tonya Harding story is unlike anything you've seen this year.
A pitch-perfect acting ensemble makes I, Tonya a lot of fun, including Oscar-worthy performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
Irreverent, wildly funny, but also appropriately dramatic when it needs to be, the Harding story has a vast array of twists and turns, which rely on some potentially unreliable narrators to keep us engaged and entertained.
The breakneck approach to the film left some viewers exhausted. I, Tonya is an acquired taste, especially with the cadence it maintains and the unconventional manner with which this film is constructed.
Should this be, I dunno, a comedy? Like, maybe we should think long and hard about that one.
There is a growing number of people who feel that this movie allows Harding too easy a pass for some really awful things she was a part of in her heyday. That's an interesting criticism and one you may very well come away with after watching Craig Gillespie's film.
A ferocious slab of dark comedy, I, Tonya takes a blistering look at the infamous 1992 figure skating scandal centered around U.S. Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and the bizarre assemblage of individuals around her who attempted to steer her career in a number of different directions.
Essentially a Harding biopic, with Robbie sensational in the leading role, I, Tonya strikes a distinctive balance between the comedy and the drama of Harding’s life, upbringing, and demeanor. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars & The Real Girl, The Finest Hours) frames the film, initially, as a documentary. One-by-one we are introduced to the subjects who will occupy what eventually becomes something of a modern day Greek tragedy.
Initially, Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers focus on Harding’s difficult upbringing with mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Harding is often ridiculed and mocked by her mother, but at the age of 4, she brings her to a local skating rink in nearby Portland, Oregon. Initially turned down by coach Diane Rawlinson (Juliette Nicholson) because Tonya is too young, LaVona forces Diane to coach her and over the years, Harding uses her natural gifts and talents on the ice to become the top local skater in the region.
As Harding moves into her teenage years, she is winning events and facing constant emotional abuse from her mother. She soon meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who becomes smitten with her and the two begin a relationship.
Moving through I, Tonya, we realize, from the beginning, this is not going to be a conventional biopic. We are flashing backwards and forwards, people are talking to the cameras and breaking the fourth wall, contradicting scenes right after they happen and embracing a group of unreliable narrators telling the Tonya Harding story. To Rogers credit, this works because he and Gillespie find an infectious energy, built partly from performances so good and believable, but also from a story quite compelling and downright strange.
The film ultimately builds to the Nancy Kerrigan incident, which, for those not familiar with Harding's signature moment, is how she remains most well known. After Harding finished in 4th place at the 1992 Winter Olympics, she sees her former friend, Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), emerging as a rival. And while the film still plays coy with what specifics Harding may have known about, in January 1994, weeks before the Winter Olympics, Kerrigan was assaulted by a man named Shane Stant, who clubbed her in the back of the knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), orchestrated the attack.
That story, in and of itself, is as unbelievable as it is ridiculous. Gillespie gives us ample time to understand how these individuals got to a place in their lives where they felt they could orchestrate such a heinous act. And there is a surprising emotional depth that bubbles just below the surface through much of the film, even in its wildest and most unabashedly bonkers moments.
While the details of I, Tonya may not apply to most of us, there is a fear of abandonment, a lack of trust, and self-sabotaging your own best interests, which resonate with anyone watching the film. Whether we admit or not, those themes speak to us, and likely someone we know. So is I, Tonya a cautionary tale? Perhaps this is where Rogers and Gillespie, and Robbie, especially, hit the target so consistently. They make us care and feel badly for people who largely never got a lot of sympathy or compassion in their lives.
Except maybe for Janney’s LaVona, whose irascible nature and uncompromising disdain for Tonya is hard to forgive – even if she does have the funniest moment of the film.
But are they humanizing deplorable individuals? Harding received some punitive ramifications for covering up elements of the attack, but does the movie allow her an "out" for the behavior of others. Clearly, the film does, but whether or not you can accept that will largely dictate your response to all of this. And man oh man, this movie has its detractors.
For me, I largely enjoyed the film, and it holds up to repeat viewings quite well. I, Tonya is a wild, free-wheeling movie that takes lots of risks. And there’s an unfiltered, love-me-or-hate-me, #IDGAF vibe to the film that makes it stand apart from anything else I've seen in 2017. Amplified with brilliant performances, while the characters may be tough to love, I, Tonya remains a fascinating story to watch, ponder, and consider.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Juliette Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Mckenna Grace, Lynne Ashe.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Release Date: December 8, 2017