Biopic sympathizes with chaotic lives of former figure skater, and her family
January 18, 2018
Nothing in “I, Tonya”—or, perhaps more accurately, the life of Tonya Harding—is easy to understand. She says so herself at the end of the film: “There’s no such thing as the truth. Everyone has their own truth.”
The film makes this distinction clear through its use of a non-linear narrative, combining present-day mock interviews with flashbacks that span nearly two decades. The three principles in the film include the titular former figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her insecure and abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her hard drinking, cigarette-smoking, manipulative mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney).
All three characters have their own truths when it comes to the planning and execution of the infamous 1994 incident involving the attack on Harding’s chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, just prior to the Winter Olympics. Because director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers opt for sympathetic, nuanced portrayals of the deeply flawed characters, we as the audience are given the task of forming—you guessed it—our own truth as well.
To most, the name “Tonya Harding” rings the same bells as “Balloon Boy” and “Octomom.” We see them all as nothing more than regular folk who gained national notoriety due to the exploitative nature of the 24-hour news cycle. But until Balloon Boy and Octomom get the biopic treatment, I’m going to focus my efforts on trying to reckon with the dramatization of the very complicated life of Tonya Harding.
“I, Tonya” portrays Harding as a prodigiously talented figure skater. After all, she was the first American woman to ever land a triple axel—a supremely difficult jump that only seven other women in the history of the sport have ever done. But tragically, she fell victim to both industry standards (the judges would give the working-class Harding lower scores based on her homemade outfits and perceived lack of class) and circumstance (her controlling mother, harmful ex-husband, etc).
Margot Robbie’s performance as Harding is nothing short of masterful—immersive yet definitive. Deftly altering her approach based on the various challenging points in Harding’s life, Robbie captures all of the difficult physical movements and emotions required to play the part.
In a silent but powerful scene, Robbie stares into a mirror prior to competition. The scene lasts a full minute and merely consists of Robbie trying to force a smile through tears and an uncomfortable amount of makeup. It’s a subtle showcase, but one that proves Robbie has no ceiling when it comes to can’t-take-myeyes-off-of-them charisma.
Sebastian Stan does his best to hold his own opposite Robbie, but falls short in many instances—though, this is far and away his best on-screen work to date. Stan’s Jeff Gillooly functions mainly as Harding’s main supporter and abuser—an oscillation that permeates throughout the film.
Yes, Gillooly loves her. He says so, he buys her favorite dessert (Dove bars) and he cheers for her at her competitions. But he also degrades her, slaps her around and points a gun in her face.
At one point, Harding discusses leaving him but decides not to, deciding she was willing to put up with abuse—and even believe it was her own fault—as long as she had someone who told her “I love you.” Heartbreaking, but moments like that are what make this film a uniquely sympathetic experience—one that shows us how conflicting abusive relationships can be.
Finally, this brings us to Allison Janney’s performance as LaVona Golden. Janney is sure to get an Oscar nomination for her ferocious performance that mainly consists of boozing and swearing. But Janney—as she has done so consistently throughout her entire career— brings a grounded humanity to her character.
Janney qualifies Golden’s lifelong pushing of Tonya’s skating abilities (“I made you a champion. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes.”) and her dedication to her daughter (“Every penny I made went to you”). Janney’s fragility and fallibility make her easier to love, even when she tries so damn hard to make us hate her.
Rounding out the cast is Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s skating coach (perhaps the only purely decent character in the film) and Paul Walter Hauser as Gillooly’s friend and coconspirator, Shawn Eckhardt. Hauser steals every single scene he’s in, hilariously playing on his character’s delusions of grandeur (he thinks he’s a counter-terrorist expert, despite still living with his parents).
Perhaps the most impressive thing that the film accomplishes is making us care about a person we all thought of as nothing more than a punchline. That in and of itself signifies a talented filmmaking team in Gillespie and Rogers.
Having said that, the duo falls short in regards to some of the stylistic choices made in the film. Though the film makes extensive use of its erratic narrative, breaking of the fourth wall, sweeping tracking shots and ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, much of the inspiration reads as derivative and vapid. We’ve seen it all before—and done better—from Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. When you aim to be great, you get compared to the greats—for better or worse.
Though “I, Tonya” is no masterpiece, it is still an entertaining and enlightening film that brings new light to the life of Tonya Harding.
Given our current national climate—one that includes fake news and exposing Hollywood predators—Tonya’s mantra of “everyone has their own truth” echoes louder than ever.
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.