If you know me, you know I love movies but I also have a love for sports. I’m a film nerd who went to an all-boys-Jewish-sports camp every summer for 14 years, so it stands to reason that I would love sports movies/biopics. They can be fictitious comedies like The Replacements (2000), coming of age stories like The Sandlot (1993), ‘true’ stories like Remember the Titans (2000), or something more tragic – like the story of acclaimed figure skater/national punchline Tonya Harding in director Craig Gillespie’s dark comedy/biopic I, Tonya (2017). Anyone familiar with Tonya Harding’s story knows the main “selling point” is her alleged involvement in the kneecapping of rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. While there has already been a documentary delving into the subject – an ESPN 30 for 30 titled “The Price of Gold” – Gillespie dives even deeper into the life and hardships of the athlete to show that Harding is not a cut-and-dry villain, but rather a tragic figure who survives recurring abuse; first from her mother (Allison Janney), then her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and finally from America as a whole. Margot Robbie turns in a captivating performance as the titular Tonya Harding and conveys the sharp, witty, and tragic viewpoint of a female athlete with a triumphant/tragic narrative.
The movie is outlined by interviews with Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan), mother LaVona (Janney), and a few more select personalities from Harding’s career. The movie doesn’t dive straight into the nitty-gritty of “the incident” and instead lays groundwork for Harding’s life and the hardships she has to suffer in the name of her figure skating career. Wherever Tonya’s life took her, abuse followed her like a shadow. Her mother was verbally toxic, telling Tonya even after her best performance that she skated around like a bull and was embarrassed for her. Her scumbag on-again-off-again husband Jeff was nothing short of disgusting. If he wasn’t threatening to kill himself out of love, he was striking Harding with frozen broccoli. Even the skating community would not give Harding a fair chance because of her lowly upbringing and “redneck” demeanor. The performances help you laugh through this darkness to keep you from crying, but the circumstances also display how Tonya works best because of her lack of support, not despite it. However, repeated moments like these had me wishing director Gillespie would take some artistic liberty and not draw out Jeff’s abusiveness every other scene. We fully understand the toxicity he brings to Tonya’s life, but we do not need a reminder every few minutes about just how abusive this guy is.
Gillespie’s artistic approach can be jarring, with characters randomly breaking the fourth wall and the over-emphasis on Harding’s abuse becoming almost painful to watch. Still, the film never feels like a PSA and never paints Harding as ‘just’ a victim. She’s a fighter if there ever was one, and she is unrelenting in letting the world know how she feels about her treatment – especially from the country that is supposed to “support” her athleticism. Harding is the first female to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition, and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe-loop, yet gets little to no recognition because of “the incident” that overshadows her. Where Gillespie truly shines as a director is during the skating sequences; Tonya tears up the ice with freedom and tenacity that you normally never see on the rink. She ignores the conventions of melodic symphonies and “wholesome” garb and instead comes out in a unitard she made herself and throws on ZZ Top to wow audiences. The skate sequences are mesmerizing as they follow Harding’s movements with ease and show audiences just how talented you need to be to be a renowned figure skater. The tragedy of Harding’s story lies in the fact that she skates her heart out for the love she is never going to get. Her mother will never tell her she’s proud; her husband will never stop abusing her; judges will always judge her on her appearance instead of her skillset. Harding uses these injustices to fuel her determination to be the best.
When the movie finally gets to “the incident” with Nancy Kerrigan, Gillespie treats it like a Coen brothers movie: two idiots who think they’re the smartest people in the room bumble around and commit this shoddy, half-assed assault. It’s comical, really, especially the performance Paul Walter Hauser delivers as Jeff’s best friend and the “brains” behind the whole stunt. Hauser and the remainder of the cast give stellar performances – especially Robbie and Janney. Robbie, who is relatively new to the Hollywood scene after her breakout supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), belongs in fleshed-out films like this rather than the likes of Focus (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016). This movie lets Margot really shine and she gives her best performance to date; angry, sad, and even disappointed throughout the downward spiral of Harding’s skating career. Allison Janney’s performance as Harding’s mother LaVona is perfect, flat out. As of now, she is my number one pick for a Supporting Actress nod. Janney completely steals any scene she is in. It’s great to see Sebastian Stan outside of a Marvel movie, despite my feelings towards the character (or I guess the person, since these are real people being portrayed).
What makes I, Tonya work so well is that it is not a cookie-cutter sports biopic. There is no struggle to overcome adversity or a game clock winding down at a snail’s pace for the final play to take home the Big League Trophy. Instead, it shows Tonya Harding as someone painted the villain during her entire career. It’s a story of helplessness and what that feels like, even when you’re on top of the world. How could Harding be behind Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecapping when she was so deprived of control to begin with?
A fascinating portrait of a tragic athlete, I, Tonya breaks the mold of traditional sports biopics and shows the harsh realities of verbal/physical abuse, helplessness, and even powerlessness despite feeling nothing but power for your skillset and athleticism. Margot Robbie gives the best performance of her young career and is supported by an uncanny Allison Janney. It’s further proof that history is written by the victors and asks audiences to reconsider Tonya Harding’s story not as a portrait of a wrongdoer, but a diary of misfortune. Tonya Harding isn’t redeemed in this movie, but I walked out with a degree of respect for her that I felt she was obligated to have.