Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running Length: 120 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating. Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years. Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out. We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.
I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star. Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan. While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.
Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own. At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s. It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.
Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered. Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges. Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them. There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.
Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else. LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father. Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.
I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced. While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding. Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie. There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.
Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body. Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad. Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film. Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance. It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.
It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though. Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time. While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in. This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.
Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out. I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about. While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool. This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.