“I, Tonya” revisits — with verve, intelligence, scathing humor and more than a touch of sadness — the bizarre 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by goons associated with the camp of Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding. If dredging up that tough subject all these years later seems news-worthy,, you should also know that the movie holds a certain elusivity of the truth. In addition to all that, it’s a portrait of an America at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, the coming epidemic of not-my-fault, and our soon-to-be-pathological fixation with fame-for-fame’s-sake.
“I, Tonya” is funny when it wants to be, pungently obvious when it needs to be and surprisingly effective in telling deeper themes to a character who might otherwise be dismissed as the laughingstock. “Generally people either love Tonya or are not big fans,” says the skater’s first coach (played by Julianne Nicholson), in an early voice-over that is a tell the film’s intentions to paint Harding as a national icon, for better or for worse. “Like people either love America or are not big fans. Tonya was totally American.”
Directed by Craig Gillespie adapted from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, the film is based on what we are told, via on-screen titles, were a series of “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews that the screenwriter conducted with Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, in period-perfect makeup, hair and clothes). It begins with 4-year-old Tonya’s arrival on the ice, pushed there by her stage-mother-from-hell, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, puffing on More cigarettes and swearing like a sailor). From that point forward, Gillespie tracks Tonya’s slippery path, from the skater’s abusive childhood to her downfall while still in her 20s.
Robbie’s performance is a complete erasure of who the actress is, with her transformation of Tonya, beneath a front of tough-girl makeup, crunchy hairspray, and the Oregon-born Pacific Northwest accent. But the role is more than an impersonation, and Robbie is able to find — and to show us — the broken pieces of Tonya’s damaged soul, with a kind of intense vulnerability that makes her not just sympathetic but, at times, heartbreaking. Stan is also very good as Jeff, a schlemiel whose account of the events he is said to have masterminded often flies in the face of Tonya’s version of the same things.
Present-day flashbacks by these two characters frame “I, Tonya,” which plays out as a series of flashbacks, during which Stan and Robbie will occasionally break character to directly address the camera. The supporting cast is perfect in their portrayals, most notably Bobby Cannavale as a TV producer from the tabloid news show “Hard Copy,” and Paul Walter-Hauser as Gillooly’s imbecilic co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt.
With witty and fast commentary, this film is a must-see-must-know type. From the beginning to the end, a constant sympathy and hatred will be called forward, and used to make a connection- and break a connection with each character and their story.
by Hannah Zolezzi