“I, Tonya” (2017) – “America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.” – Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie)
Twenty-eight years ago, during the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the most hated person in America was a 23-year-old figure skater. Tonya Harding. The American public directed their ire – fueled by a constant media swarm from very reputable and questionable news outlets – at Ms. Harding due to the infamous assault on her main rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) at a Detroit ice rink just one month prior. Although Harding did not conduct the assault herself, many Americans were convinced that she not only knew about the Kerrigan attack ahead of time but probably masterminded it.
Take a ride in a time machine back to February 1994 and ask anyone in the Continental United States, “Who is the world’s number one villain?”
Some might throw out Darth Vader, Count Dracula, or Freddy Krueger, but Tonya Harding could be the most popular answer.
Thanks to director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl” (2007), “Million Dollar Arm” (2014)), movie audiences do not need to build a time machine because he takes us to the 1994 Winter Olympics and back to the 1970s in an intentionally chaotic and surprisingly uproarious Tonya Harding biography that is nothing short of dizzying, explosive cinema.
Simply put, “I, Tonya” is one of 2017’s best films and should not be missed by those who lived through the 1994 firestorm about an unlikely ice skater/villain.
The picture moves like a motorcycle breezing at 85 mph through 55 mph freeway traffic, darting, zipping, cutting through crowded lanes and offering unexpected moments of danger. Throughout the film’s 119-minute runtime, Gillespie repeatedly stuns us into holding our breath, grants us some temporary relief, and then throws us into sudden detonations of humor at unorthodox, bizarre, and tragic turns became Ms. Harding’s life, especially during the winter of 1994.
Presented as a feature film biopic – with a documentary-feel that repeatedly breaks the fourth wall – Tonya, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) air out their perspectives that help organically explain the dysfunction within this skater’s universe. In the end, Gillespie’s film – supported by writer Steven Rogers’s script – invokes sympathy towards Ms. Harding.
LaVona – fueled by a steady diet of cigarettes and gurgling internal frustration and rage – pushed young Tonya (nicely played by Mckenna Grace of “Gifted” (2017) fame) to be the best and considered anyone – within eyeshot or earshot – an enemy. With her acidic attitude towards everyone in her path, one immediately recognizes LaVona as the chief antagonist. Every second of Janney’s performance projects a villainess hypnosis that shocks, disgusts, and engenders volatile bursts of hilarious disbelief. One would have to search hard to find an ounce of LaVona’s humanity, but it probably resides beneath thousands of layers of deep-seated abuse and neglect, and the results are equal bouts of horror and laughter.
Janney rightfully won the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and Robbie was nominated for Best Actress but lost out to Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”.
During a Q&A session at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Robbie said she practiced skating for three or four months, five days per week. Even though computers helped present a CGI triple axel on-screen, she did all of her own skating.
Robbie is a marvel to watch.
She seems to channel Harding during the skater’s awkward teenage years, biggest successes, troubling downfalls, and speaking to the camera in her kitchen and reminiscing about her sorted history between cigarette puffs. Harding’s look is scarily spot-on, and much credit should go to the film’s makeup department.
The film reveals LaVona’s verbal and emotional abuse and Jeff’s never-ending physical (and emotional) violence against Tonya during their turbulent relationship. LaVona and Jeff stand as Tonya’s most soul-crushing demons, probably more haunting than her millions and millions of haters after the 1994 Kerrigan attack.
“I, Tonya” does not have a recent comparison film, as this highly unique comedy and odd, dramatic biopic constantly amazes during its nearly two-hour journey.
Gillespie achieves a remarkable result because “I, Tonya” – a 119-minute presentation – single-handedly and fundamentally changes our perception – or at least this critic’s – of Ms. Harding. Astonishing.
Harding’s on-screen story glues our eyeballs to the screen, and Paul Walter Hauser should also garner a special achievement award as Tonya’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt. Along with Robbie and Janney, the three deliver a triad of unforgettable performances that are worth multiple viewings, not because we love to hate their real-life characters’ actions.
“I, Tonya” is – somehow – just easy to love.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, and Paul Walter Hauser
Runtime: 119 minutes
Image credits: NEON, 30 West