“I, Tonya” Movie Review

After many instances of falling on my butt, I gave up trying to be an ice skater. And now after watching this movie, I’m glad that I made that decision. This biographical black comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before releasing theatrically on December 8th, 2017. Expanding in the ensuing weeks, the film has already made back more than half of its $11 million budget at the box office. Directed by Craig Gillespie of Lars and the Real Girl fame, the movie was reportedly going to originally be a Netflix Original. But after a strong showing at TIFF, the newly-formed Neon won out the acquisition, likely as a potential last-minute awards-season wrench. Based on the insane, unbelievable, wildly contradictory true story, Margot Robbie produces and stars as Tonya Harding. Despite being beaten and shoved by her family and growing up in a poor environment, she is determined to become the best figure skater in the world. In 1994, she gets a chance to compete in the Winter Olympics against Nancy Kerrigan, a rival skater with a much more “esteemed” background. On the off-chance that you don’t know how this story ends, I won’t go any further into it. But I will say that reviewing this movie objectively is extremely difficult because virtually every living American has an opinion of Tonya Harding. Some people love her, others loathe her. I, myself, am split down the middle because although I do feel more informed about the situation, the whole picture is still not that clear. But if I’m being honest, in the end, we’ll probably never know. I can say, however, that on its own, the movie I, Tonya is unabashedly entertaining and surprisingly resonant. And a lot of that success comes from the crackling screenplay by Steven Rogers. The events of the film are told in a nonlinear fashion, where the excerpts of the story from the past are inter-cut with interviews taken recently.  These interviews are filled out by the actors playing the parts, and sometimes a hardcut between a harsh scene involving Tonya and a deadpan comment made me laugh uncontrollably. It’s actually a lot like the Coen Brothers’ Fargo; a bunch of idoits come up with an insanely stupid plan that they have no business pulling off. But Rogers isn’t undermining anyone; he knows that this story is tragic regardless of what perspective is being told. In fact, all of the characters being interviewed have very different recollections of events, which is wise for the audience to decide for themselves. They even break the fourth wall at times, which allows for some great bits of levity.  Does Margot Robbie deserve Best Actress consideration as Tonya Harding? Absolutely. Her take-no-BS attitude and wicked tongue make her relatable to the audience, especially when we observe her harsh upbringing. Sebastian Stan plays her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who brings a nuanced and thick haze on the figure. One minute he’s softly flirting with his wife, the next he’s engaged in a shouting match of emotionally harmful words. But really, West Wing‘s C.J. Cregg A.K.A. Allison Janney makes this her own show as LaVona Golden, Tonya Harding’s mother. The 4-time Emmy winner smokes like a factory and says a number of things that are politically incorrect yet hilarious. Despite her emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, I definitely feel like she’s qualified for Best Supporting Actress. And whenever these actors aren’t lighting up the screen, the technical aspects of I, Tonya keep the viewer entranced. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography often presents the story in a handheld, cinema vérité style. This allows everything to look lived in and sweated in, giving some realism to a tale otherwise filled with utter lunacy. During moments of actual figure skating, Karakatsanis and Gillespie opt to use long uninterrupted takes to showcase the true talent of Tonya and Nancy. We see the actors’ facial expressions go from sheer terror to relieved happiness in no time. Each of the interviews, meanwhile, is cropped at the sides while the actors have all advanced nearly 20 years of age thanks to the excellently subtle work in the makeup department. And the editing knows just how long to stay on one scene before going back into the present, which keeps everything flowing nicely. But the most impressive part of the movie, by far, is how Craig Gillespie refuses to take sides in telling this story. As I said, for better or for worse, virtually every American walking abroad today has an opinion of Tonya Harding and the things that she’s done. Some hate seems justified, some not so much. And that opinion may hinder or heighten your experience with this film, but Gillespie and Rogers choose not to ask the audience for a letter of forgiveness to Tonya Harding. They present each truth as they are told, leaving it for us. We see how Tonya’s poor upbringing hurt her chances of being respected in the ice skating culture. We see the effects of her extremely toxic marriage to Jeff Gillooly on her emotional state of being as an adult. We witness (and sometimes feel) her jealousy towards Nancy Kerrigan and what that ultimately leads to. At one point, near the end of the movie, Tonya issues an impassioned statement, “I’ve never had a real education. Skating is all I know. That’s all I know.”  Though it can occasionally feel like a tonal juggling act, I, Tonya is a painfully funny and contradictory account of a controversial American figure. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney both turn in some of their best performances to date, while the writing is consistently sharp and edgy. This is quite possibly the most inventive biopic of the year and a nice breath of fresh air from stuffy glorification showcases. This is a real story with multiple angles to work from, and that’s my truth.

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