MOVIE REVIEW: I, Tonya
Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival
I, TONYA-- 5 STARS
For anyone who thinks Suicide Squad star and The Wolf of Wall Street vamp Margot Robbie is just a hot bod and a pretty face, watch I, Tonya. The 27-year-old Aussie’s ferocious and zealous performance riding the peaks and valleys of disgraced former champion figure skater Tonya Harding will erase those old notions centered solely on attractiveness. Brimming with depravity and teaming with talent, I, Tonya may be the brashest film you will see seen this year and, quite frankly, one of the downright best as well.
Director Craig Gillespie dives into a cesspool of cussing country bumpkins, rife with cigarette smoke and calamitous chicanery, to sketch one of the more crazy and warped American Dream stories of celebrity and achievement you will ever find. Breaking the fourth wall left and right in-scene and through documentary-style interview setups, I, Tonya dispenses with typical sports film conventions and chugs a six-pack of Scorsese Lite for a different liquid courage. Banging a southern rock soundtrack and recreating period-era video footage, savvy styling is employed to tell this sordid biographical tale with deceptive flow and salacious wit.
The fifth child from the fourth husband of Lavona Golden (Allison Janney), Tonya Harding, played at a young age by Gifted star Mckenna Grace, showed talent and promise on the ice in Portland, Oregon. As a thumb to the nose at a sport known for wealthy elegance, the hard-talking and hard-driving blue-collar mother saw to it that Tonya receive complete coaching from Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson of August: Osage County) while stitching her competition outfits herself. Dropping out of school to train full time as a teen, Tonya (Robbie) improved to become championship material, but not without abusive lumps along the way. Tonya’s self-described redneck story continues off the ice with courtship from Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a controlling and simple-minded teen fling that would become her husband and the root of the worst decisions she would make in her life.
LESSON #1: THE CHARACTER DAMAGE CAUSED BY DOMESTIC ABUSE-- Despite her own wrong choices, Tonya Harding is a double victim of destructive abuse. Between her mother and her boyfriend/husband/ex-husband glossing it over as character-building and true love, we witness a flight of tastes to the full range of verbal, physical, and psychological debasement Tonya was subjected to. From barbs like “you f--k dumb, you don’t marry dumb,” these are supposed to be people to love, not hate.
LESSON #2: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT IS STILL REINFORCEMENT-- The abuse can’t be used as a full excuse for Tonya and the way she is, but the truth is she was better when her blood was up. Call it conditioning, but she channeled her rebellious rage into her skating and it made her an Olympian. The burnout that followed was not worth the fame.
Through winning 1989’s Skate America and netting the first 6.0 technical merit score at the 1991 U.S. championships with her first triple axel, Harding reached levels few could ascend, refusing to play along with image and norms of austerity. Dynamic camerawork from Nicolas Karakatsanis (Triple 9) and subtle visual effects layers hide stunt identities and shoot the figure skating at mostly close-up with fluid tracking, giving the film a kinetic sizzle. And then came the Olympic stages in 1992 and 1994. Peaking with “The Incident,” the off-the-ice lifestyle collides with the core beauty of the sport under the lights and television cameras for all to see.
The acting is a collective triple axel itself of smashing leads. Allison Janney’s matriarch is an absolute riot. Her rants and raves spew dialogue dripping with acidic sarcasm and pessimism. Pushing away the studly superhero charisma, Sebastian Stan gives his best screen performance to date as a detestable enabler and abuser. Both performers bring out the unflinching best from Margot Robbie’s lead. Her dueling arguments and shouldered rage for the both of them are caustically compelling. Even with the effects assist, Robbie’s physical dedication to the skating training is quite commendable. She’s a tough cookie portraying quite the tough cookie herself.
Despite stomaching some very raw portrayals of said abuse, you really have to respect the wild tales being swung around by writer Steven Rogers to compose this diatribe of disaster. For Rogers, it’s a stark departure from his romantic dramedy wheelhouse of Hope Floats, P.S., I Love You, and Kate & Leopold that has established him over the past two decades. The same sick glee can be said for Gillespie bucking his recent streak of uplifting Disney features The Finest Hours and Million Dollar Arm. If someone would have told you the writer of Stepmom and the director of Lars and the Real Girl made this witty and raucous tell-all, you would have called them crazy. Their combined work to craft and achieve this distinctive dark comedy yarn is very impressive.
LESSON #3: EVERYONE MIGHT BE TELLING THEIR TRUTH, BUT NO ONE IS TELLING THE REAL TRUTH-- The true merriment of I, Tonya is the trying to sniff out the bullsh-it. Many of us remember witnessing the tabloid history unfold on television before our very shocked and captivated eyes in an era before the 24-hour news cycle. Even knowing the fate of the characters, this film’s spin of such events will glue you to the screen preparing for the suspense of possibly observing a few chapters of “what really happened.” Who’s right and who is full of it?
Reminiscing fans will crave this film’s dangling of unsubstantiated truths. Moving with all kinds of tonal energy on its mockumentary roller coaster rails, the film’s use of unreliable narrators and conflicting perspectives is ingenious cinematic storytelling. It’s the best fourth wall work since The Wolf of Wall Street, and maybe even better. Watching these performers portray these real-life characters in a conceived present-day setting looking backward to tell their rumor-laced story is like a good trainwreck. You can’t look away and the crash is glorious.
LESSON #4: JUDGING AGAINST AN IMAGE-- Finally, it has not mattered from her emerging youth to her Olympic peak or her 15-minutes-of-fame antics now, too many have judged the exterior of Tonya Harding as a bad egg with a dangerous temperament from a deplorable upbringing. The public needed a villain and someone to hate and they made that out of Tonya. Even knowing what we may or may not know now as a punchline, it’s a shame her undeniable talent never got its due or proper chance.