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Managing to both revel in its subject’s trashiness and convince us she’s far more innocent than America believed, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya reintroduces us to the most infamous athlete-villain of the first half of 1994 (that was the summer of O.J., you’ll recall) and lets her, for once, have the last say. Proving, after many a stolen scene, that she’s capable of carrying a picture in the lead role — even when makeup and hairstylists treat her character’s famous looks cruelly — Margot Robbie takes obvious pleasure in playing figure skater Tonya Harding, from her vulnerable teens to her present-tense, take-it-or-leave-it retirement. The lively and lurid film has solid commercial legs under it and marks a rebound for Gillespie, who has yet to match his lovable breakout film, Lars and the Real Girl, but is definitely earning his right to keep trying.
Despite its title, the pic (written by Steven Rogers) is deliberate in spreading the narrative focus around. Based, per the opening title cards, on frank interviews with the participants that are re-created here, the film front-and-centers not just Robbie’s Tonya but the skater’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, endearingly stupid and embarrassed of his infamy); mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney); skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson); and deluded “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). All are sadder now; wisdom is less evenly distributed. But each brings something to the table — even the too-proper Rawlinson, who, when training young Harding, always encouraged her to wear nicer clothes and clean up her manners; a movie this full of colorful wing nuts needs a voice from Squaresville.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Though this is a finely crafted vehicle for Robbie, the filmmakers are wise enough to let Harding’s mean old bat of a mother take as much of the attention as she wants, which is most of it, most of the time. (At one point, as the movie is tracking the dissolution of Harding’s marriage, Golden drops in out of nowhere to complain to the camera, “Well, my storyline is disappearing. What. The. Fuck.”) As seen here, Mom was an unloving creature who nevertheless wanted to spend all her time around her daughter once she recognized her talent. She spent every dime she made on skating lessons (unasked for, as far as we can tell), and she never let her daughter forget it.
She also beat her child — on camera, Golden halfheartedly denies this — preparing the girl to accept similar treatment later from Gillooly. (Some viewers will be bothered by the film’s flippant use of domestic battery for comic effect. But this does seem to reflect the participants’ view that it’s just another unpleasant fact of life.) Gillooly denies the abuse just as Golden does, and as the film’s first half blazes through adolescence and the start of the couple’s marriage, one speaker frequently contradicts another’s account, sometimes by addressing the audience directly during a re-enactment.
In fact, the film subversively never even lets us have a handle on just whose memory it’s trying to be faithful to. Nearly everyone, at some point, says something that isn’t played out onscreen. Perhaps this evasiveness is meant to teach us to doubt the storytelling in the second half (you know, “the incident”), but it doesn’t seem that way when the time comes.
Robbie and the screenplay persuasively portray the 15-year-old Harding as a dirt-poor kid who, in addition to splitting wood and tinkering with engines, is more than willing to assert herself on the ice. She is tentative in the buildup to her first kiss with Gillooly; but when judges at a competition don’t give her the points her skill deserves, she’s not above skating over to the judges and telling one to “suck my dick.”
The problem, clearly, is that officials at these events are looking to promote a wholesome, ballerina-like female ideal. They don’t want some chick who makes her own costumes and dances to ZZ Top. But the world has to start warming to her when Harding executes a triple-axel jump (the first American woman to do so, she’ll remind you), and soon she is Olympics-bound.
Throughout, Gillespie directs as if he’s been mainlining Goodfellas. His camera never rests, sweeping and racing around even when Harding is tearing up the ice. (He also indulges in needle-drops of some conspicuously eccentric pop records; none are as inspired as Martin Scorsese’s best, but whose are?)
Surprisingly, the excitement level dips just a bit when the true-crime stuff starts. Those of us who try to ignore tabloid news stories (this viewer wasn’t absolutely certain that Harding didn’t chop off her husband’s penis) will certainly be surprised at the movie’s account of how Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, got her leg injured during training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. In fact, some cursory research suggests the movie’s account doesn’t exactly match the story as it is widely understood.
But I, Tonya spins a convincing yarn despite, or maybe because of, its surfeit of unreliable narrators. This woman, we find, may be guilty of nothing more than a deeply unfortunate upbringing and terrible taste in men. Harding had a gift and was willing to sacrifice just about everything to nurture it. She was looked down on and insulted and beaten, then enjoyed a short period of adulation from complete strangers who were as amazed as she was at what her body could do. If only that moment of glory weren’t negated by everything that came after it.
Production companies: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
Producers: Bryan Unkeless, Steven Rogers, Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley
Executive producers: Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Vince Holden, Toby Hill, Craig Gillespie, Zanne Devine, Rosanne Korenberg
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Composer: Peter Nashel
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Lynsey Brown
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
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