I know I’m late on this one. Bite me.
I learned about Tonya Harding from a relatively early age. My mom watched a lot of the VH1 docu-series “I Love the ’70s” and “I Love the ’80s,” which I often watched with her. I loved picking up on pop culture of a different era, on the things my mom loved when she was my age. Though, it was “I Love the ’90s” that I loved the most. I wasn’t alive for nearly seven out of the 10 years detailed, and I didn’t remember most of the things that they spoke of, but I had a connection to it. The 1994 episode covered the press frenzy that was the Harding story, where Harding’s ex-husband contracted someone to attack Nancy Kerrigan, a rival figure skater, by bashing in her knee during a training session. Harding was found to know of the attack ahead of time, was sentenced to probation and was removed from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. She came to national attention and soon became the poster child for corruption in athletics, and became the laughing stock of the world.
Set in the late-’80s/early-’90s, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is a young figure skater raised by the determined and sociopathic LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). Trained by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she soon makes herself known as an unconventional figure skater. She isn’t rich like the other girls, so her handmade suits and pension for skating to ZZ Topp doesn’t do her any favors, but her talent soon does. Harding becomes the first woman to ever land the coveted Triple Axel move twice in a competition, attracting the attention of the world. Losing to Nancy Kerrigan in the 1992 Olympics, she soon gears up for her last shot to win a medal in the 1994 Olympic Games. Once a victim of a death threat before a competition that threw her off, her and her (very abusive) husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) hatch a plan to do the same thing to Kerrigan. When the plan goes awry, the men hired to send the threats end up attacking her off the ice, bashing in her knee, bringing the world’s gaze to Harding when the story begins to fall apart in front of her very eyes.
“I, Tonya” simply asks “What if there is more to the story?” Many are criticizing the film for giving Harding “victim” status, but even the first title cards of the film reveal that the film is constructed from the accounts of Harding and those surrounding Harding, and that they are contradictory and often salacious. “I, Tonya” doesn’t seek to change minds, but to expand them. One of the best things about this divine biopic is that it knows that at least one person, if not everyone, is lying about the entire incident. You can leave “I, Tonya” pitying Harding, or you could leave the film hating her more than you ever did before it. Steven Rodger’s screenplay doesn’t want to sway you, it just wants to show you to your face so you can find out whose side you’re really on.
What are my thoughts? I think Harding is an unfortunate victim of circumstance that led her to being a completely dysfunctional adult. That being said, there were a lot of hoops Harding had to hop through on her own to end up being the piece of work she is. I don’t feel one way or another about her. I pity her for her upbringing and abuse suffered by the hands of those she loved, but given the evidence in the case against her, there’s no way that she didn’t at least know something leading up to the attack.
What I do feel about Harding is that Robbie’s performance is one for the ages. Robbie, arguably one of the most beautiful women working today, scales it back big time for Harding. Not in the typical “she didn’t wear makeup” type of role where pretty women “ugly” themselves up, but more so in that you get the real feeling based on her style, even during the time period, that Harding is what she described as “white trash.” Robbie takes herself in a new direction with Harding, it’s quieter and sometimes funnier than we expect her to be. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. I want to hug Harding while also slapping her. The beauty in Robbie’s performance is that she’s a Harding for all people, love her or hate her. On top of Robbie is Janney, who is simply mesmerizing as Golden. She’s a whole new monster of a mother, somewhere in-between Joan Crawford and Mary from “Precious.” Janney, perhaps channeling some of Trudy Pengleton from “Hairspray” is a force of nature as Golden, one that, however heartless and cruel, you sometimes root for her to redeem herself, only to be utterly revolted by the end of each opportunity.
Director Craig Gillespie handles the material in “I, Tonya” with a special grasp that balances the film’s comedic aspects with that of its darker side. The film never feels too quirky when it breaks the fourth wall and doesn’t do it too often to be annoying, nor does the film rely too heavily on its interview cutaways to be distracting. If one thing is distracting about “I, Tonya,” it would be its music supervision. Often times, the film’s music choices feel a bit too obvious, and often come up one too many times to feel genuine or special. If you ram it into the ground a million times, it loses its effect.
There’s a certain artificiality in the look of “I, Tonya” that I figured was from the low-budget nature of the film having to use CGI to cover its bases on things like Harding’s triple axel and certain locations she was required to be in, but I soon found this strange look to much of the film to work in its favor. Why? Because it blurs the line between reality and fantasy. I’m not sure if it was meant to be that way, but the way that “I, Tonya” looks makes the story being told that much for susceptible to scrutiny. Not everything looks and acts perfectly, making the audience have to stop and think just how true is the story being told, or if all of it is true? Who knows? Gillespie and his team do a wonderful job never answering that question.
And it’s that sort of ambiguity that makes “I, Tonya” so special. You don’t have to feel one way or another about Harding and her alleged deeds. The film leaves it open to your discretion about how to feel. That might not fit the narrative of Robbie bringing Harding as her date to the Golden Globes, or Harding’s newfound fame from the film, but the film doesn’t want you to like Harding, it only wants you to understand her. When it comes to the events that brought Harding down, with a million different views dominating the conversation, there’s no way to know exactly what happened. Even with Robbie’s charisma as Harding, I’m sure that the easiest explanation is probably the correct one, but “I, Tonya” made me take a second look at the events in a different light, and even if I don’t think much different about the events at hand, even if I respect Harding’s struggle and experiences tat led her to that point to make one terrible decision quite a bit more.
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, with Bobby Cannavale, and Allison Janney.
Runtime: 120 minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity.
Now playing exclusively at AMC Concord Mills & Carolina Pavilion, and Regal Birkdale Stadium and Ballantyne Village.
NEON and 30West present, and AI Film presents, a Luckychap Entertainment production, a Clubhouse Pictures production, a Craig Gillespie film, “I, Tonya”