DATEWORTHY? Mixing dark humor with sharply drawn characters and some of the past year’s most colorful performances, ” I, Tonya” is a terrific date film that will spark plenty of conversation.
The Meryl Streep-Tom Hanks collaboration “The Post” is drawing plenty of glowing attention for its portrayal of the noble side of journalism via the Washington Post’s historic battle to print the Pentagon Papers. But the indie upstart “I, Tonya” packs even more of a punch by showing how the Fourth Estate started its terrible tumble into round-the-clock tabloid sensationalism.
Starring Margot Robbie in a career-making role as Tonya Harding, the U.S. Olympic figure skater who attained worldwide notoriety in 1994 by planning a vicious attack on her main competitor Nancy Kerrigan, “I, Tonya” is positively electric to watch. A stinging satire of the media and what seems to be white-trash culture, it also executes stunning pivots into serious emotional terrain at unexpected moments — with the result being a film that draws stunned gasps from the audience in both humorous and tragic moments.
Multiple Perspectives Provide Constant Surprises
The film tells its story through the multiple perspectives of its three main characters: Harding, her now-ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her utterly nasty and vicious (and yet very funny) mother LaVona (Alison Janney), who’s been married five times. An online scroll opens the movie, informing viewers that the film is based on actual interviews with the trio in which they were “irony-free and completely contradictory.”
Thus the stage is set for a darkly funny and unique tale of the American Dream gone awry, opening with a 4-year-old Tonya being dragged onto an ice rink by LaVona, who rudely begs skating coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson) to take the child on as a student. Diane turns them down until she sees how nimble Tonya already is on the ice and the look of sheer joy that crosses her face when she skates.
Skating literally becomes Tonya’s entire life during childhood, as she spends nearly every free moment in practices, even as LaVona constantly berates her for not trying hard enough. Fueled by rage at her mother and the schoolmates who taunt her for being poor, Tonya channels her anger to push ever harder to become the greatest skater anywhere.
Mother’s Multiple Marriages Inspire Doomed Romance
But then, she meets and quickly falls for Gillooly, a seemingly sweet and shy man who quickly reveals his dark side as an abuser. Not knowing if she’s worse off living with her husband or her mother, Tonya navigates the emotional minefields constantly exploding around her while rising ever higher in the skating world — until she devised her desperate, ill-fated plot to have a bodyguard friend smash Kerrigan’s kneecaps right before a key performance.
From there, all hell breaks loose, and viewers may think they remember the story of Harding and her rapid downfall. However, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers continually find ways to keep the plot packed with awe-inspiring twists.
“I, Tonya” could have been just a hatchet job on its subjects, going for easy, mean-spirited laughs. Yet it provides genuine insights into Tonya’s incredibly difficult life, showing that she never had a chance to know anything but skating and never was taught critical reasoning or empathy by her mother.
“I, Tonya” points out we’re all part of the problem
On the other hand, some critics and analysts have pointed out that the film gives Tonya too much sympathy and makes her into a feminist hero when in reality there was some evidence that appeared to show her as much more of a mastermind in the Kerrigan attack than the film makes her. In addition, Kerrigan has claimed that Tonya wanted to have her killed originally—thus the movie has some inherent dishonesty at its core.
Finding the human stories underneath what could have easily been caricatured characters, the film also serves as an indictment of each and every one of us who tune into train wreck television, enjoying the shame and suffering of others as entertainment. It’s a bracing and incredibly valuable reminder of how easily and completely Americans have lost their souls via an obsession with the soul-sucking master of us all—the television screen.
The movie features quite a bit of profanity, particularly F-words, but in the context of humor and it’s “white trash” milieu, it’s not terribly offensive. There are also several shocking moments of violence when Tonya’s husband hits or beats her at various points, but these are thankfully brief.
Blending its central story’s pathos and humor together with plenty of underlying and subtle social commentary, “I, Tonya” is a film that is not only entertaining but sure to provoke conversations.