If someone had told me a couple of years ago that a movie about Tonya Harding, of all people, would end up being one of my most anticipated films of the year, I would’ve laughed right in their face. However, when the redband trailer came out, I was surprised by how funny it looked. I also wondered how on earth the filmmakers could pull this off and not come across as tone-deaf. This story is filled with domestic violence and child abuse, after all. Somehow, they managed to do just that.
I think, unless you’re very young, you’ve likely heard about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco. A figure skater is hit and the man who did it takes off, leaving the victim (Nancy) unable to skate in a national competition and unlikely to skate in the Olympics. It’s not long after “The Incident” (as the movie calls it), that Tonya Harding is suspected of somehow being involved in the attack on Kerrigan. I, Tonya intends to set the record straight. Well. Sort of.
I, Tonya, starts off by telling the audience that it’s ‘based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Jeff Gillooly and Tonya Harding.’ The movie has certain points where the actors are older versions of the characters they’re playing while the meat of the movie is made up of events from the past with the occasional interruption of a character wanting to clarify something or insist that this particular portion that’s about to be shown just didn’t happen.
There are a lot of people who are under the impression that Tonya Harding carried out this attack herself, others say that she was the mastermind behind the attack. The movie makes the claim that the plan was actually to send Nancy Kerrigan death threats as a way to even the playing field since Tonya had been sent one and it ‘messed with her head’, and that Tonya was actually in on this plan to send these letters. The other people, according to the film, involved in this plot took it upon themselves to attack Nancy Kerrigan. Is that plausible? Maybe. Everyone involved is suspicious. Regardless of her guilt or innocence in this entire scandal, if the amount of violence portrayed in this movie are true (and I tend to believe it is), as well as the judges giving her poorer scores because she didn’t fit the mold of what a figure skater should be, I can’t help but empathize with Tonya Harding. If Tonya is telling the truth that she had no prior knowledge of the attack, and didn’t go to the FBI with knowledge she had gained afterward only because she was under the threat of death by her husband, then her subsequent vilification by the public is unconscionable.
The acting from everyone involved is top-notch. Allison Janney (who plays Tonya’s mother, LaVonna) is as good as she always is, though her part is smaller than I expected. Sebastian Stan is quite good as Jeff Gillooly. I’m not sure why he hasn’t received more notices for his work here but it’s Margot Robbie who walks away with this handily; she provides the film with its emotional core. The person she’s portraying can be unlikable and crude, but Robbie also infuses Tonya with enough vulnerability to make the audience sympathize with her, and after more than twenty years of being hated, that’s quite a feat.
There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at this movie for its portrayal of domestic violence and child abuse; some have said that its played for laughs. Yes, the way the scenes are staged, it can seem bizarre and somewhat funny, but I don’t think the intent was to get people to laugh at child abuse or domestic violence, I think it’s shown this way as more of a coping mechanism. If this had been more of a drama and they played all of these scenes straight, it would’ve been unbearable to watch.
I had a couple minor quibbles with the CGI being obvious during the ice-skating sequences, and there was a little too much music, but other than that, this is a ridiculously entertaining look at an incident that’s been long since forgotten. Even if you aren’t a fan of ice-skating (I’m not), or you didn’t care about the Kerrigan/Harding scandal (I didn’t), I’d recommend it.