It’s been a few days since I watched I, Tonya, and I’ve been talking it up, to whomever will listen, ever since. Some of these listeners ask me, “Well, is it a comedy or is it a drama?” The short, unsatisfactory answer is that it is both.
I, Tonya is Foxcatcher meets GoodFellas. It’s a harrowing true life story of athletic ambition gone awry, told in giddy cinematic terms. The film balances on a tonal tightrope deftly navigated by writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie (whose previous filmographies don’t really hint that they had it in them) and their outstanding cast.
This fact-based fiction is structured around recreated modern-day interviews with Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (who, the film informs us, changed his name to Jeff Stone after “Gillooly” became a widely-used verb, describing the act of kneecapping someone), and her mother LaVona Golden. Margot Robbie plays Tonya from teenage to middle-age (Mckenna Grace plays her as a kid) and, as we see her with a bit of age make-up and padding, sitting in a present-day disheveled kitchen, we might be tempted to pity Tonya. But this Tonya wants no pity and also takes no blame for the bad things that have gone down in her life. Her dialogue hints at self-delusion, but Robbie’s portrayal is so self-possessed and vibrant, even in these interviews, that one can’t help but respect Tonya the character — even if the film’s unreliable-narrator structure might leave us uncertain about what to think of Tonya the real person.
To its credit, the film is less interested in providing backstory to the “incident” (a phrase oft-used by the characters) that brought Tonya Harding infamy than it is about reminding viewers about her fight to become a world class athlete and revealing the facets of her life that the tabloids were too busy to explore.
Allison Janney affects a perpetual deadpan of unimpressed disdain as Tonya’s mother, LaVona. LaVona doesn’t understand how to love her daughter, but she appears to believe that constantly pushing Tonya to be the best skater, while smacking her around in answer to any infraction, is the next best thing. When Tonya realizes her potential, LaVona seeks a share of the credit — “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it” — but when Tonya becomes the target of national disgust, LaVona hangs her out to dry. By design LaVona is not an expressive character, but Janney manages to find a whole spectrum of humor, anger, and unaddressed pain within that grim facade.
I, Tonya Review: Enter Gillooly
Unfortunately for Tonya, her initially sweet boyfriend Jeff turns out to be a hitter just like mom. As Jeff Gillooly, Sebastian Stan demonstrates the most marked difference in the portrayal of his character “then” and “now.” Old Jeff seems calm, collected, and smartly self-aware, while young Jeff is a naive, oblivious, violent hot-head whom viewers could reasonably expect would hire a guy to swing a crowbar at the kneecap of Tonya’s Olympic rival, Nancy Kerrigan. (Both Tonya and Jeff deny that this was the plan. The film floats the possibility that Jeff’s “bodyguard” buddy, Shawn Eckhardt — whose head-slapping stupidity is brilliantly realized by Paul Walter Hauser — planned the attack himself, while telling the others he was pulling a lower-stakes prank.)
The odds are stacked against Tonya in other ways too. The world of figure skating is meant for girls who are better behaved, better groomed, prettier, and wealthier than she is. Julianne Nicholson plays the skating coach who tries to package Tonya in ways that will be more palatable to the typically stodgy judges. But Tonya is defiantly herself, skating to mullet rock instead of classical music and designing her own budget versions of her competitors’ frilly outfits. Eventually — with her mastery of the rarely-attempted triple axel — she becomes too good to ignore.
The film tries to stage Tonya’s skating in a way that communicates the scale of her talent, but relies too much on CGI trickery to properly relay the immediacy of watching a pro skater in action. It’s a rare misstep, but a distracting one. The film closes out with vintage video of Tonya’s star-making World Championship skate, and that low-tech footage is far more electrifying.
With its zippy storytelling and brilliant performances — especially from Robbie and Janney, although the fellas are no slouches either — I, Tonya is a surefire crowd pleaser. If it can somehow spread, in this current climate, the desire to be more empathetic to people we’ve already thoughtlessly written off, then that’s not such a bad thing either.
I, Tonya opens today in select cities and will expand in the coming weeks.
More Pop Culture Beast movies – recent reviews:
*Wonder Wheel, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake
*Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, starring Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson
*Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.